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Bolivia Letter #1

Bolivia Letter #1

July 4-7, 2006

Dear friends and family,

Greetings from Coroico, Bolivia.  Before our journey, John and I imagined we would feel moved to quickly begin writing a series of letters about our experiences here.  Instead, a kind of muteness overcame us as we collapsed into gratitude at having arrived safely and into the happy leisure of being able to rest from our labors.  We also recognize how much there is learn about this country and the small town in which we find ourselves.  Now that we’ve been here a couple of weeks and have settled in, our inner voices are beginning to speak.  I remember writing letters from Zaruma, Ecuador, five summers ago as an experience of slowly dawning awareness.  I thought I knew something and the next day I would need to revise my thinking!  Since we’ve already been wrong about a number of things here, we are moving slowly and with a dose of humility.  For instance, I imagined Bolivians might be particularly wary of visitors from the U.S. because of our country’s foreign policy.  Our experience so far suggests that that level of geopolitical engagement isn’t where most people’s attention is focused.  Bolivians are very concerned with domestic politics and the politics of Latin America.  Are the intentions toward Bolivia of Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, good — or is he trying to compromise Bolivian sovereignty by making his poorer but politically progressive neighbor a sort of underling?  Is Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, going to preserve or ruin the coca-growing industry?  Will Bolivia ever make good money on its natural resources, money that trickles down to the people?  And will the indigenous majority finally feel fully enfranchised, respected and heard?

Another miscalculation on my part was thinking that we would be able to find an apartment or house to rent here in Coroico.  It’s an incredibly picturesque colonial town.  It’s also quite small and there’s very little “middle class” of the sort we found in Zaruma, Ecuador.  Many families live in one or two small rooms, have a rudimentary kitchen that more than likely does not include a refrigerator, and some have just a single cold water tap in the way of plumbing.  Not so many years ago, when electricity was new in town, electric lighting was available between 6 and 10 pm and most people used the three communal baths in town for bathing and washing clothes.  The houses are made of adobe (in various stages of erosion), bricks, or concrete.  We did not find any houses or apartments to rent in part because almost all houses in town are occupied and because we gringos want a well-equipped kitchen and a hot water shower.  We are glad to be here rather than in the highlands, where people wear layers and layers of clothes because there’s no heating.  It’s not hard to keep in mind who’s contributing to global warming and who is putting on another layer of alpaca wool.

We are happily settled into the Hotel Esmeralda, which is owned by a woman born in Coroico and her German-Bolivian husband.  We have a two-story hotel room, with the kids downstairs and John and me upstairs, separated by a narrow staircase.  The view from our upstairs window is spectacular.  We can see layers of the Andes cordillera, including snow-capped peaks nearly 20,000 ft. high.  We’re at a temperate and idyllic altitude where coffee, bananas, and tangerines grow in abundance, above the malarious zone and mainly below the gorgeous “cloud forest” that sweeps in over the peaks some days.  As chief domestic worker back home, I am basking in not having to cook or clean.  Meals are served buffet style at the Esmeralda, so we roll down to the dining room and eat whatever is there.  This is easier for the omnivores – John and me – than for Paige the vegetarian or Marcus of the Limited Palate.  After much searching, we did manage to find a jar of home-ground peanut butter for sale by the central plaza.  The grocery stores are also general stores and the staples of life are sold cheek by jowl – soap, cooking oil, sacks of pasta, beans, and potatoes, matches, toilet paper, eggs, batteries, bottles of Coke in World Cup colors, sweets, gelatin, and, in some stores, fresh foods.  The town is small enough that everyone knows everyone, and there is a lot of trust.  Shopkeepers put a thin bamboo rod at an angle across their doorway – but leave the door wide open – when they’re gone for lunch.  The many merchants who sell their wares on the sidewalk or the outdoor market cover their wares with a tarp at night and go home to bed.  There are few vehicles, so children are safe on the street.  Paige and Marcus are so comfortable at the Hotel Esmeralda that John and I are able to go away for a couple of hours at a time on a videotaping adventure.

As for how the kids are faring, it has been interesting to watch.  Marcus, who has always said that this trip of over eight weeks is much too long, suffered acute homesickness and bouts of sorrow for the first week.  And then, bit by bit, el norte faded away and he began to live fully in the here and now.  He still misses a few things – his swing in our back yard in Boulder was mentioned most recently – but not a lot.  He’s a good-natured child and he looks for his pleasures where he can find them.  This hotel has a swimming pool (with cold water – I’ve ventured in exactly once for about two minutes), a foosball table, a pool table, and TV for watching World Cup games.  We adults have John’s laptop, so we and Paige are able to send email via the new Wi-Fi connection.  It is sort of mind-bending to have Wi-Fi here and take in what the town does not have….  For instance, a computer hooked up to a printer – I’m not sure that configuration exists in this town.  And yet, the future has arrived.  Yesterday, the caballero who rode with us on horseback out into the countryside had a cell phone on his hip because it was part of running the rustic stable.  It was a wonderful place in its own right and Paige was delighted to find sheep, hens and cocks, green parrots, and friendly dogs in addition to the somewhat hungry horses we rode.

I had (unfortunately) led Paige to believe that being in Bolivia would be like being in Ecuador and that there would be plenty of kids with whom to make friends.  Well, it’s not like Ecuador, and it’s not as easy to meet kids or make friends because this is a town where tourists come and go quickly and are basically not considered friendship material.  There’s also a greater culture gap for us here, as the people are more indigenous (mainly Aymará or Afro-Bolivian or mestizo) and don’t look to North America as a cultural role model the way many people in southern Ecuador do.  So Paige finds herself living in a hotel where the 12-year-old owners’ daughter could easily befriend her, but instead ignores her.  Last night, though, we had fun all together setting off fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July and just because we could.  The 12-year-old girl has a 10-year-old brother who decided to set off his prodigious collection of Norwegian-made fireworks last night with us.  It was loud and fun.  School has been out of session for the last two weeks (‘winter break’ here), but next week Paige and I plan to visit a local secondary school, see if we can sit in on a class or two, and ask about whether Paige can do a linguistic “intercambio” with a girl her own age.   She is quite able to carry on a conversation in Spanish when she wants to….  Marcus is integrating Spanish words into his vocabulary little by little.

John is the most relaxed I have seen him in a year, perhaps longer.  I am thrilled to be here.  We got John a 5-Boliviano haircut this morning (that’s a 40-cent haircut) and I read a Chilean fashion/women’s magazine from 1998.  It had a lovely photo spread on the island of Capri – very picturesque in its own way – and I had no desire to be there (or anywhere else) instead of here.  John and I passed through Bolivia in 1988, on our way back from a year in Argentina, and I fell in love with it and have wanted to return ever since.  So, when our friends ask us with some bewilderment, “Why Bolivia?”, that’s my answer.  I like being here – a whole lot!

Every day we learn something new.  Two days ago, we spent part of the morning in Coroico’s cemetery, which is a remarkably alive place, full of fresh flowers, grave decorations, and conversations directed to the dead by the living.  Yesterday, as I mentioned, we rode horses out into the countryside past coca fields, citrus and banana trees, and coffee beans drying on racks in the sun.  The coca grown here has the most tender and delicious leaves of any grown in Bolivia.  It is legal to grow it but illegal to sell it as a raw material to be used to make cocaine.  Even the so-called “chemical precursors” of cocaine are strictly controlled.  Most of them are chemicals, but a few items are in universal use, such as toilet paper.  The Hotel Esmeralda had to obtain a special permit to get the amount of toilet paper it needs for its clients.  The U.S. would like to see the end of coca-growing in the Andes, for obvious reasons.  But coca here has a traditional role and meaning, and many people drink coca tea and chew the leaves without in any way harming their health. They rely on growing coca to make a living, and are threatened by the prospect of having their livelihood taken away from them.  A young U.S. embassy “drug eradication” intern stayed here at the hotel last weekend and warned John that if he so much as drank a cup of coca tea he could test positive for cocaine.  And so John poured himself another cup, of course.  It’s very mild – reminds me of chamomile.  We are enjoying the tropical fruit, the fabulous coffee, and (sometimes) the fact that when you order food, they may start by making the noodles from scratch and then cooking them….

Yesterday I visited the local hospital with a nurse we know.  I wouldn’t hesitate to seek care there.  Remarkably (this is something Bolivia does much better than the U.S.), there’s government-paid universal health care coverage for pregnant women and children 0-5.  If a woman needs a caesarean, no problem.  And if a person without any government or private health care coverage needs care – and this category includes most adults – here it costs $1 to see a doctor, including a number of specialists.  We also learned yesterday that you can pay $70 a night for a “single” hotel room in this town (they charge by the person, not by the room per se) and you can also pay the equivalent of 62 cents to sleep on a concrete floor on a couple of wild-grass-filled cushions without bedding of any kind (brrr!).

And now, though I could go on and on, it is John’s turn to share some impressions…. I haven’t said a thing about the famed “road of death” (also known as “the most dangerous road in the world”) over which we traveled to arrive here from La Paz.  Our niece Elena arrived an hour ago and now she, too, has braved the road.  The road figures in our film project, currently in gestation, which is an unending source of rumination and imagination.  We send greetings and love and we hope you’re enjoying your northern summer.


John here.  Coroico is gorgeous in the way that Zaruma was, but even more so.  The vista from our hotel room window (through which I am now looking) extends from the river valley 1500 feet below to the high peaks on the horizon 13,000 feet above.  The disappearing remnants of two glaciers are visible when it’s clear, and the swirling clouds and haze fall into constantly transforming layers of green, blue, and grey as the nearer mountains fold and drop into the jagged peaks beyond.  It reminds me of the view from Beret’s family cabin above Ward looking up to the Indian Peaks, except vaster, higher, steeper.  Two days ago there were fires on the highest slopes, sending plumes of smoke sideways and down into the deep valleys, hanging in a skein that turned at dusk from brownish-grey to deepening blue, in such a profusion of textures, with bright little points of flame flashing red as darkness descended, that the high peak and its surrounding valley looked like Tolkien’s Mount Doom.

We awake to a riot of birds.  Flights of wild parrots gabble loud as they beat past.  Another bird with a black body and a long yellow tail loiters in the trees next to the hotel pool and gives an exotic cry.  Buzzards circle lazily, riding the thermals up past our window (there’s two out there right now).  The buzzards are easy to videotape.  The parrots are elusive, because they buzz by so fast.  But they were a good excuse for me to get out early with the camera on the balcony adjoining the hotel dining room today, taping sound more than sight, birds and breeze intermixed with the faint morning sounds of the town below, church-bells and motorcycles, roosters and radios, all mixing quietly together until the hotel turned its stereo and started the endless random CD shuffle of European and US pop that plays from dawn to dusk in the dining room (this morning it was Rolling Stones).   Many of the parrots have been domesticated around town and provide refracted windows on the households of their captors as we walk by.  The other day I could have sworn a child was terribly injured inside the adobe wall I was passing – only to look up and see it was the parrot screaming.

By midday, the smaller creatures are commanding our attention.  There are no mosquitos here, and we have seen exactly one cockroach since our arrival in Bolivia (around here, that’s probably the result of pesticides).  But the bug situation is by far the worst I have ever encountered.  The nemeses in question are tiny brown gnats known locally as chuspis.  They swarm intermittently and unpredictably around midday.  They make no sound that I can hear, and you cannot feel them biting you.  You simply notice that there are four of them around your arm or hand or foot and that you have fifteen fresh bites in the exposed area all about an inch apart.  That night each bite goes go pink in a quarter-inch radius with a tiny red blood-blister in the center, and it itches like poison ivy for three days.  You get a new crop of bites on a new part of the body every couple of days.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat.  Marcus’ legs now look like he is in the early stages of leprosy.

Anyone care to visit?

I was going to rave about my favorite topic when we travel to Latin America, safety and the lack thereof, about which, owing to the steep mountains and dangerous roads, there is much to say around here (in fact, our current best idea for a film topic may take up this theme) but the kids are bored and restless and want to swim, and this group letter has gone on quite enough to try the attention span of most of you (as has this sentence).  So I’ll sign off.  Much love and warm regards to all.


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Bolivia Letter #2

July 9-12, 2006

Dear friends and family,

We sent our first letter from Bolivia a few days ago, and I feel moved to start a new missive.  Yesterday John, Paige, and our wonderful niece (and film assistant) Elena went down the hill to the village of Yolosa, which is at the bottom of the camino de la muerte where the mountain bikers finish their ride and get off their bikes.  They went in search of footage of the mountain bikers riding into town and instead got to participate in a traditional Aymará wedding party.  Elena and Paige were invited to dance with the wedding guests.  They had a wonderful time while John videotaped.  John promised to make VHS copies of the footage for the families of the bride and groom.

John and I went back to Yolosa today to give the VHS copies to the celebrants and ran into the bride herself, who still has confetti in her hair.  We had a sweet moment with her and her friends and they gave us bottles of Coke in commemorative World Cup colors as part of their abundant expression of thanks.  Then we turned to seeing what footage might present itself to us today.  There’s a river that bisects the village and we videotaped people bathing and washing their clothes in the river.  We also photographed the village, which consists of a few dilapidated adobe houses along a dirt road and food stands for local people and passersby.

We noticed water taps at ends of the one-lane bridge that crosses the river and that people were filling pails, rinsing their heads, and otherwise making use of the taps.  Then we saw a mother helping her two young daughters to urinate by one of the taps, which was right next to the “public bathroom” where, for four cents, you can use a waterless pit toilet that drains out three pipes right into … the river.  I know because I just had to go in there and see what was what.  Downstream from the effluent pipes were more people bathing themselves and washing their clothes.  It was a poignant portrait of what Yolosa does not have that the town where we live, Coroico, does have.  There were no showers in the public bathroom – just one clogged up sink — hence the bathing in the water taps and in the river.

We had the good fortune today to be standing in exactly the right place as the mountain bikers finished their rides and got off their bikes.  They were covered with dust and generally happy about their experience on the road.  A woman we interviewed this morning here at the hotel (who bunked last night with Elena, who is in the “dormitorio” $5-a-night part of the Hotel Esmeralda) did the ride yesterday and found it terrifying.  She said there were times when her goggles were so covered with dust she was blinded and that she was a fool for having done it because she could have died.  She had heard about biking the road from so many other travelers when she was in Peru that she thought she wanted to have the experience, too.  There’s a real hip young traveler cachet to “having done the road” and having the t-shirt that says “I survived the world’s most dangerous road.”  We witnessed the group getting their t-shirts today and some of the shirts went on immediately, as signs they that had been initiated into their own special tribe invented only in the past ten years.

But about the road itself….  It is over seventy years old and was hewn out of rock by Paraguayan prisoners taken by the Bolivians in the Chaco War of the 1930s.  Though Bolivia is a country where people drive on the right, as in the U.S., the downhill traffic on the “world’s most dangerous road” drives on the left so drivers can hang their heads out their windows and see exactly how many centimeters their tires are from the cliffs and abysses.  Bike riders also need to ride on the left, as the uphill traffic comes around blind corners … on the right.  But when they’re forced off their bikes by uphill traffic – you have to imagine how shockingly narrow this road is in places – they are instructed to get off on the right side of the bike so that if something goes off the cliff, the bike is more likely to be what takes the plunge.  Well, in a panic, one doesn’t always remember instructions, especially when you think you’re about to be run over by a huge truck.  We heard today of a woman who got off on the wrong side, disappeared over the edge, and was very lucky because there was a ledge to break her fall.  She broke her collarbone in three places and got a serious concussion.  That did not happen today, but in the group we met in Yolosa that arrived with the safest biking concession of all – owned by a Briton and his wife – an American tourist had crashed and had a huge contusion on her face.  She believes she has a broken foot and is being taken back to La Paz to a hospital tonight.  She is young, traveling alone, and very upset.

So, that’s a small road story for you….  There are many more that are a great deal more upsetting involving whole buses going over the edge.  A truck rolled over onto its side on the road today, spilling its cargo all over.  Frankly, it’s a bit scary just riding to Yolosa.  The taxis that run that route are fairly ancient pick-up trucks.  Passengers stand in the back, holding on to some part of a grid of metal bars for that purpose, and (if you’re me) hoping the brakes don’t fail on the ride down.  There are plunging drop-offs in many places along the road and if you went over, you’d most likely have only a few seconds to have a last thought or two.  However, most things end well and driving to Montana from Colorado, which we do nearly every summer, has its share of risks.  Later this week we will spend time with the first “human stoplight” (semáforo humano) on the old road. Stay tuned for that story.  We will also go to a local Afro-Bolivian village for a couple of days and learn about their agricultural lifestyle and whatever they want to tell us about themselves.

Every day here is a rich experience with surprises in it.  Sometimes we have to work to connect with people and sometimes there’s a serendipity to our encounters.  Today we rode back from Yolosa with an Afro-Bolivian with a fabulous smile and a certain elderly grace – who reminded me quite a lot of my uncle Dick.  In fact, I mentioned my uncle to him, asked to take his picture, and we paid for his ride, as we hired the whole truck so we could get back to catch part of the world cup final between Italy and France.  He shook our hands and thanked us up in Coroico.  The people here have beautiful manners and will always, always return a greeting.

I have become friendly with the young man who cleans our room.  He’s already a husband and a father.  He quit high school two years shy of a diploma because, as the only boy in his family, he had to go to work.  I asked him how much he earns here and the answer was $75 a month for days that begin at 7 am and may end at 8 pm.  Most everyone works six days out of seven.  Sometimes the day of rest is Monday, and weekends are devoted to what they call “feria”, which is a grand pair of market days when people come in from the rural areas miles away to buy and sell food and other goods.  We have bought knock off “Polo” shirts – nicely sewn and 100% cotton – for under $8 (which was the tourist price, I imagine).  The point, of course, is to keep the vicious little chuspis from biting us.  I think John wrote that the welts they leave are a quarter of an inch across.  Nonsense – they’re at least half an inch and on Paige, who is delectable, they are even bigger.

A couple of afternoons ago, as we were waiting for Elena’s bus from La Paz to arrive (which it did, hours late), I overheard a musician playing guitar and quena (Andean flute/pipes) in a restaurant.  By the next day, we were having a fascinating conversation with him about art and artists in Latin America and elsewhere and he played and sang for us.  We are considering using some of his music in the film.  John also arranged to get recordings of traditional local songs from the local radio station, Radio Uchumachi.  Uchumachi is the mountain that towers above Coroico.  It is said to be a place of spirits and one person told us there’s a floating forest up at the very top.

These days, there’s a great deal of smoke in the air.  Fields are being burned for miles around to prepare for sowing more crops.  Many of the fields are on very steep hillsides that are terraced to hold the rows of coca plants.  We have been aware that the people of Coroico seem a lot happier and more optimistic than the people we knew in Zaruma, Ecuador.  The people of Zaruma were, hands down, wealthier than the people here.  However, Zaruma was and still is in crisis over there being so little gold left to mine there and little tourism or other options yet appearing.

Here, in contrast, there’s a great deal of hope that the new socialist president really cares about the people and won’t be a corrupt self-dealer the way so many presidents have been in the past.  Also, they have tourism here and expect more to come when the new road from La Paz to Coroico is finally finished (if indeed that day arrives – the road has been under construction for over 30 years and there’s a shocking level of debt to the World Bank over it, a fact that makes many people bitter).  The local people are skeptical about whether the new road is safer than the camino de la muerte, but they feel that if merchants and travelers want to use it and feel more able to come to Coroico because of it, great!  I have a desire to come back in five years and follow up on the story of this town, poor Yolosa at the bottom of the hill, and the two roads.  Speaking of Yolosa, that river gets to flood stage nearly every year and four years ago a massive flood wiped out half of the houses.  There’s no uplifting future for the people there, at least not that we can see.  An ancient woman we interviewed, who has lived there for nearly thirty years, wept with emotion – gratitude – over our coming to document their village and told us how she and her husband did a lot to build Yolosa into what it has become.  She has dreams for the future of the village, but knows that there’s no capital with which to fulfill them.

As for Coroico, it does well in comparison, but it has its struggles, too.  They have just entered the season that comes every year – usually in August or September – when there’s simply not enough water to supply the town.  Yesterday the water flowed at a trickle in the afternoon; an hour ago, there wasn’t a drop.  The plumbing here is a bit marginal to start with, but our bathroom is memorable.  It is made of three kinds and colors of tile in addition to brick and a lot of concrete, has a purple ceiling and tangerine walls, a painted concrete countertop (dark red), various leaks, and a handsome long-legged spider who lived in the shower for quite a while and who is now awol.  The owner of this hotel – Don Fernando – has an artist’s sense of esthetics and design.  He has done beautiful things in the design of the rooms, buildings, common areas, and grounds, and apparently built the whole place after his one and only architect proved worse at engineering tall concrete buildings on a steep hillside than Fernando did.  Frankly, it’s a great privilege to wake up here in the morning, open the window, here the cocks crow, maybe see a flock of green parrots fly by, and then wait for the raptors to begin their rounds.  It’s also a great privilege to be here with our children and learn right alongside them.  Paige may soon begin volunteering at the local public school’s kindergarten (four-year-olds), which she finds an uplifting prospect.  I hope all of you are enjoying your summer.  -Beret


Now it’s my turn, two days after Beret’s missive above.  Paige and I just returned from a visit to the local stable, where horses are rented to tourists and where sheep, chickens, fighting-cocks, parrots, and sleepy bashful dogs wander around a pair of ramshackle adobe buildings and a dirt paddock half-fenced, half-dug into the steep hillside, surrounded by towering banana trees.  We went riding last week and asked if we could return to videotape the animals.  But what really turned Paige on this afternoon was the still camera.  We recently purchased a good digital SLR with a nice zoom, and Paige fell in love with it.   The joy of looking at the world through the camera eye suddenly opened up to her, and she started seeing pictures everywhere she looked.  It is delightful to watch her at this age of discovery, at turns tentative and self-protective, then breaking out of herself with a flourish.

It’s been interesting, too, going around town with expensive video and camera equipment.  The conventional wisdom about Aymara people is that they don’t like having their photos taken, and it’s generally true.  But the more we do this work, the more I realize that their reluctance is not based on some superstition about stealing the soul.  It’s something more universal, that we have seen in various cultures, including our own: the frustration of never getting to see the product of the activity.  When we went back to Yolosa to deliver the VHS copies of the wedding footage to the bride the day after the wedding (no talk of honeymoons here – the extent of her “time off” was probably to sleep an extra hour before beginning the daily chores), she was at first guarded, asking how much I was going to charge.  When I told her the copies were free, she bloomed into a lovely, open smile.  For the rest of our morning’s taping, all of the neighbor women, who had also been guests at the wedding, smiled and nodded at us as we taped or photographed.

One of these women turned out to be the next-door neighbor of Don Timoteo, a man we were eager to meet and if possible to film.  On the road from La Paz there are several people who work as “human stoplights,” on a purely voluntary basis, standing at the apex of particularly dangerous blind curves and signaling to oncoming drivers whether the way is clear.  Don Timoteo is the man who first came up with this idea, a former truck driver who was once posted to guard the site of a wrecked bus that went over a precipice, killing all aboard, until rescue crews were able to reach the site down the cliff and recover the bodies.  He spent 23 days on that duty, contemplating the wreck below and the bodies among it, and during that time he started directing traffic on the hairpin turn that was the cause of the crash.   In the decade since, he and has become somewhat famous for his good work, and he has been filmed several times by news and film crews.

So when Elena and I showed up in Yolosa at 6:45 yesterday morning to ask Timoteo if we could accompany him on the road, he was obliging but clearly not enthusiastic.  He said yes, but he was not willing to let us get in the vehicle that stopped in front of his house to take him to the site, telling us to catch a ride with someone else.  But we were persistent.  Once we got transport to his location, Timoteo began to tell us his story, stopping to wave red or green signals like giant popsicles to oncoming drivers, and to collect the coins some of them offered as they sailed past.  The more we talked, and the more we asked him about what his challenges were, the more animated he became.   It seems that journalists have previously been interested in the pathos of the work and the dangerous romance of the road, but not in the practical realities of what he needed to do his job better.  He wants a poncho to keep the rain off.  A cell phone so he can keep in contact with the other “human stoplights” along the road, to keep count of vehicles in the dense fog, or to call for emergency response to the accidents he is unable to prevent.  He would also like replacement for the worn-out surgical mask he wears every day to deal with the choking dust, the kind that medical workers in the US use once and throw away every day.  He has asked the road maintenance officials to build him a safe space to stand, to provide a better footing for the 3-by-3 lean-to shelter he has built hanging out over the abyss, to get periodically out of the weather and traffic. He has also asked for another lay-by on this particularly hairy stretch of road, so that the downhill vehicles he signals to stop do not have to drive in reverse fifty feet to get to a spot wide enough to allow the uphill vehicles to pass.  He points out to whomever will listen that there needs to be some repair of the crumbling culvert under the muddy curve where a top-heavy tractor trailer tipped over in the night three days ago, and where the driver’s family are still trying to salvage some of their lost merchandise from the ravine.  If I were he, I might add that he would like a potable water supply and a sewage system in Yolosa so that his ten-year-old daughter does not have to brush her teeth at the open tap by the side of the road or walk three blocks to a pit toilet to pee, and then wash her clothes downstream from where others are peeing. But he isn’t dreaming that big.

Timoteo also wanted, but apparently didn’t think he had the right to ask for, a copy of his footage.  It seems that of the various times he has been interviewed and filmed, he has never seen any of it.   So, among all of his needs I could do little about, at least I can do that.

Of course, the idea of photography as (mis)appropriation is very old.  It is even embedded in our language.  One “takes” a photo.  In Spanish the connotation is even stronger; the verb, “sacar fotografias,” means to take, to pull out, and is related to the verb “saquear,” to sack.  What we have learned is that all you have to do to counter this conditioning is give some of it back.  People are surprised and delighted to receive their own images.

I end with the joke of the week.  We were watching the World Cup Final, and Marcus posed one of the stream of hypothetical questions he asks each day: “How would you like to see a soccer score of 48 to 1?

“That sounds like a World Cup team against a Boulder County Y team,” I answered.  “I mean, we would SO kick their butts.”

He looked at me sternly.  “But that would be a lot of fouls.

Be well,


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Bolivia Letter #3

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                                 July 16-17, 2006

John here.  We are taking a rest day.  The buzzards have been flying past our bedroom vista in twos and threes, perhaps headed to some cadaver in the jungle.  The verticality of this place is such that they are mostly flying below us, even though they are flying high above the ground.  For obvious reasons, we are getting plenty of exercise.  Even walking to breakfast involves two flights of stairs; going downtown to the plaza is the equivalent of walking down fifteen stories, and back up them to return.

Besides difficulties of transportation, about which we have told you, the steep hillsides also define the other main aspect of this place: the cultivation of coca.  Coca grows, in neat terraced rows, on the steepest grades.  The plants are small and shrubby, with bright upturned leaves like immature golden privets, and the local slogan is, “coca es vida,” coca is life.  The town hall even has a coca leaf on its logo, combined with a rainbow and a toucan.  Small rectangular coca fields are everywhere (I could probably count thirty from our window if I looked hard at the distant opposite hillsides).  But the coca production level is considerably less than it was in colonial days, when the Spanish first established haciendas in the Yungas valleys to supply coca leaves to keep their slaves working longer and harder and with less food in the famous silver mines of Potosi.  Before the Spanish, the Inca royalty used coca for ceremonial purposes, and before them the ancient Aymara peoples of Tiwanaku.  Some say coca has been cultivated here for several thousand years.   The outlines of the old haciendas are still visible as swaths of land where the forest was once cleared, now covered in grasses that blur the faint lines of former terraces, like the wrinkles of an ancient face.

The haciendas left other legacies as well.  African slaves were imported to grow the coca, and, unbelievably, these relations of master and slave persisted until Bolivia’s agrarian reform of 1952.   As a result, there are many populations of Aymara and Afro-Bolivians here who have been legally tied to particular parcels of land for hundreds of years, and for whom slavery, in the full brutal meaning of the word, is a matter of vivid living memory.

This week, we spent two nights in one of these pueblos, Tocaña.  This town, like all towns here, clings to a steep hillside halfway up a mountain.  The inhabitants were the slave population of a hacienda until the 1950s.   After the agrarian reform, the hacienda was razed, parcels were measured out for individual ownership, and the people voted to form a cooperative of growers.  There are now a couple of hundred residents, almost exclusively Afro-Bolivians.  They have citrus, banana, and coffee groves around their adobe houses; a church, a one-room schoolhouse for the primary grades, an African-looking cultural center financed by a European NGO; and a series of outlying coca fields stretching up, down, and to either side, dotted with swimming-pool-sized enclosures with slate floors used for drying the harvested leaves.

We arrived late Thursday hoping to tell the story of coca through this village.  A Bolivian man who was trained as an anthropologist but who looks like a Rastafarian and calls himself “Pulga” is something of the town cultural interpreter.  He took us under his wing, introduced us to the community leaders and local elders, and took us on a walkabout of the incredible vistas above town.  After being introduced to Johnny, the leader of the growers co-op and thus effectively the mayor of the town, I asked if the people would allow us to film.  He asked what the project was about, and I explained that people in the US have really no idea about the cultural and economic meaning of coca in this part of Bolivia, and that North Americans largely equate coca with cocaine.  We were hoping to make a film that helped North Americans understand the difference.  He said that he would ask the community.

The next morning, we saw Johnny again, and the answer was no.  He explained that even though people were supportive of the idea I had expressed, because we were from the US, people suspected that our real purposes might be otherwise, and they did not want to take the risk.  We told him we respected the decision and asked him if he would sit for an interview about his feelings about coca, mistrust, and the United States.  He agreed.  He explained that, because the people here need to grow coca to survive, and because the US wants to eradicate coca, the people basically feel that the US is trying to destroy them.  Neither he nor anyone in Tocaña has any faith in the “alternative development” strategies proposed by USAID. Citrus prices are too low and coffee is too expensive to plant for more than local consumption.  The land is too exhausted from centuries of cultivation to grow other things.  There is no capital to retool their fields, for seeds, fertilizer, or equipment.   Regional governments skim off the money that is offered for alternative development projects, so that the villages rarely get a cent.   Coca, in contrast, can be harvested three times a year from the second year it is planted and sold at a decent price.   And coca, simply, is life.  People chew it, drink it in tea, use it medicinally, and venerate it as an offering to Pachamama, the goddess of Earth.

In 2003, the Bolivian government tried to intervene militarily in the Yungas to eradicate coca.  The growers fought back with machetes, rocks, and they even threw beehives into government vehicles.  The poorly-supported government force of young conscripts was besieged, defeated, repulsed.  Asked if the people of Tocaña would fight again if the US tried to eradicate coca by force, Johnny shrugged, “Of course.  We would have no choice.”

I imagine all this sounds very “political.”  But it isn’t, really.  It’s simply the way things are here.  Pulga called the culture here a “culture of resistance,” and I don’t think he meant it in some grandiose way.  It’s more like the way a spruce at timberline, dwarfed, oxygen-starved and lightning-scarred, resists by merely existing.  You can see it in the faces.  Since our return yesterday there has been a festival commemorating the Bolivian Revolution of 1809, and people have been celebrating on the plaza in Coroico — the most amazing variety of faces I have ever seen, from rosy Teutonic tourists to deeply blue black Afro-Bolivians, sharply-notched Inca profiles and broad mestizo noses.  But what struck me most about some of the faces were the marks of resistance.   Resistance to hunger, untreated disease, unhealed injury.  Here no teeth.  There a cheekbone smashed and an eye gone.  There a burn extending under the collar like the map of a continent.  A scar like a railroad across a nose.  A dog with one eye.  A man in a wheelchair navigating a world of steps and slopes.  And on every face over forty, lines.  Deep lines of laughter, worry, anger, surprise, survival.

But there is more to it than resistance.  The people of Tocaña have formed a musical and dance troupe called Saya.  It is a combination of African and Aymara rhythms and song, call and response, with rhymed couplets on everything from culture and tradition to current events and politics.  They performed in the plaza yesterday as part of the Independence Day celebration, and the crowd loved it.  It reminded me of the Micronesian stick dances that the Refalawasch perform on Saipan, and it had a similarly intense combination of joy, cultural assertion, and at moments an almost solemn seriousness.

Finally, of course, there cannot be a fiesta in Latin America without things that go BOOM.  We were prepared for, and slightly underwhelmed by, the fireworks display in the Plaza on Saturday night, after having witnessed the amazing “burning castle” contraption they set off in Ecuador when we were there in 2001.  But we were unprepared for the artillery and automatic weapons fire emanating from the drug police barracks this morning at 6 am.  The barracks is very close by our hotel, and the explosions were incredibly loud and sounded a lot like a terrorist attack.  There were three loud explosions that rattled the windows, followed each time by bursts of machine gun fire.  Car alarms went off, and there was shouting.   I rolled out of bed, camera in hand, wondering what I was getting up to witness and whether life in Coroico had just gotten a whole lot more dangerous.  Elena said later that her roommates all got up as well, convinced that the hotel was about to be robbed.  But the hotel staff, who were awake to start the day, just shrugged.  “They do it every year on Independence Day,” they informed us.  And sure enough, the shouting from the barracks was transforming into slurred army drinking songs.   So we shrugged as well and headed back to our rooms for another hour of sleep.

There is more to tell, of course, and the story of coca and cocaine is complex in ways we have only begun to fathom, but I’ll give “la palabra” to Beret.  We miss you and hope you are well. – John


Living here, especially engaged in a project as we are, is a process of learning and sifting through the various, sometimes contradictory stories we are told.  There are differences of perception and opinion about virtually everything.  We have learned over the years that we can’t understand an issue without attempting to learn about the larger context, especially the history and cultural traditions at work here.  When John wrote about “coca es vida” (coca is life), what came to my mind is that for the farmers, no viable alternative has been found.  For the more urban people, there’s great hope for the future in tourism.  But tourism changes local culture, as we see here in Coroico, and that’s a complex subject.

I have been reading a monograph on the Yungas, where we are, published in 1929.  It was written when the old road was in the planning stage and was slated for construction.  Before that, people traveled on the backs of mules.  The oldest man in Tocaña, Don Manuel, lived his first thirty years as a slave and told us of the beatings he received at the hands of the “bad masters”.  He also finally got to go to La Paz soon after World War II.  He walked – three long days there, three days back.  And now he lives on a tiny patch of a former hacienda.  He’s blind and he’s waiting out his days with his ancient wife.  They have no electricity, sleep on wooden pallets, and their clothing hangs from a couple of rafters.  We had to take refuge in the one-room adobe-walled sleeping house during a dramatic deluge and windstorm.  One part of the tin roof began to flap in the wind and it wasn’t at all clear it wouldn’t blow away.  Where we lived in Micronesia, pieces of flying tin roof actually killed people during typhoons.

But back to the monograph.  There’s a long, thoughtful letter in there from Dr. Ascarrunz explaining to the Secretary of the League of Nations that coca and cocaine are different things, that Bolivians produce and consume coca, which has many health benefits (which have since been studied by reputable U.S. and European scientists), coca is Bolivia’s long-standing tradition, and that even in the 1920s growing coca earned farmers more revenue than growing other crops.  Lastly, and most important, Bolivians did not manufacture, consume, buy or sell cocaine.  He also wrote that it is impossible to intoxicate oneself with the coca leaf, which is true.  Several poisonous chemicals are required to turn the one crucial alkaloid (among dozens of innocuous fellow alkaloids) into a dangerous and addictive substance.  In the late 1920s, Bolivia exported only a small amount of coca that was turned into cocaine – by pharmaceutical companies in Germany and England.  As I interpret what he wrote, the plea seems to be to let Bolivia continue with its tradition, not to intervene in its domestic affairs (as the League of Nations had done, for coca and cocaine had been conflated and even labeled “narcotic,” which is an incorrect classification), and to work to manage the cocaine problem where it was created – outside Bolivia’s borders.  This seems to me to be the argument still, except that there’s a great deal more abuse of cocaine and everyone knows that some of the coca grown here is diverted into illegal drug production.  So coca is more morally complicated and a more ambivalent, painful topic now, nearly 80 years later.  I assume that USAID’s efforts to support alternative agriculture are in good faith, but with the legacy and habit of corruption among government officials, it’s hard to imagine real success.  Also, people here are not going to give up their coca.  It provides nutrition in a land of fairly pervasive malnourishment and it would be somewhat analogous to our giving up coffee, tea, and Coca-cola all at once.  As Paige puts it, “coca is to cocaine as grapes are to wine.  I eat grapes and it’s fine.  I don’t like wine.”

We had a rich experience in the small town of Tocaña.  As John recounted about our time there, after having our wish to film be politely rebuffed, one thing led to another and we ended up interviewing the town leader about trust, mistrust, cultural issues and the community.  Then we were allowed to film a bit – making adobe bricks, the school, the church – as long as we did not film their cocales (coca fields).  We later interviewed Don Manuel, Pulga (the Quechua anthropologist who lives there), and Father Victor, an Afro-Bolivian Catholic priest who was our host at the one alojamiento (lodging place) in the village.  We loved the quiet of the place, the narrow paths that link one family to another, as the houses are spread out across different faces of a gently sloping mountain.  We learned a lot in our brief stay, and Elena and I drank warm beer with a number of locals, including Johnny and Pulga, at a wooden table outside a store run by an Aymara man. Half of his one-room house was his sleeping area, half was his store. When I asked where in the world they would travel if they had the opportunity, the unanimous, soulful answer was Africa. It is thought that the people of this village are descended from slaves originating in Angola, the Congo, and perhaps elsewhere, but no one is sure.

We crowded into the back of a jeep taxi the next morning for the ride back to Coroico, just in time for the Festival Agraria (Agrarian Festival) and a spirited music and dance performance by the Saya, the pride of Tocaña.  It was wonderful to see Coroico full to the brim with people from the campo or countryside and to see the respect people have for one another when they gather for an occasion of civic and regional celebration.

This past weekend was also the celebration of the Grito de Libertad of 1809.  Grito means shout, and in the predawn the next morning we were startled awake by what sounded like a bomb going off, followed by gunfire.  We thought some terrible riot had broken out due to all-night revelry and who knows what else.  As John mentioned, it turned out that the “grito” was being expressed by the local drug eradication soldiers whose barracks are very close to the hotel where we live.  In the course of the daylight festivities down at the plaza, schoolchildren presented skits, poems, and music.  Speeches by dignitaries preceded and dances by various fabulously dressed troupes followed.  I particularly loved the ballet folklorico from La Paz, which struck me as having the elegance of tango and the lifeblood of salsa.  When you think of how recently the people of this country truly won their freedom – the indigenous people, who are the vast majority – by which I think I mean feeling free to try to better their own destinies, the celebration of liberty is very powerful.  The people here deeply value what they have and who they are.  They are protective of threats to their sovereignty and to the prospect of a better future.

We’re at the half-way point of our trip, and the kids have done a fine job of doing their best to adapt to life here.  Tomorrow Paige begins volunteering in an English class at a local secondary school.  Yesterday Marcus had his first secret admirer, who turns out to be not so secret after all – a little girl who made him an “I love you” valentine accompanied by a bouquet of red hibiscus and a pack of Skittles.  We found these on our doorstep.  He was pleased to be the object of such attention, which came in the aftermath of his playing pool with a gaggle of very young local girls, none of whom speak English.  They spelled his name “Make”, which would be pronounced mah – kay.  Cute, no?

I go to La Paz tomorrow, camera in hand, to document a bus driver’s story about driving passengers for ten years over the old road.  John follows on a different bus.  We will come back with a bunch of mountain bikers, John on a bike (he couldn’t resist) and I in a jeep trying to get some good images of this mountain biking phenomenon.  We will be interviewing the head of the most highly reputed mountain biking company in La Paz.  We realize that if we focused on a single character and a more easily defined and containable story, it would be easier to shoot and make our film.  But that is not what our curiosity leads us to do, nor what we want the film to be about.  In the end, we will probably have a longer, more involved story to tell than we imagined, and that will mean harder work in the editing room.  We have a history of taking the hard road, like the people of Coroico, so that seems entirely fitting.

Be well, everyone!


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Bolivia Letter #4

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                        22-23 de julio 2006

John and I have returned from our solo trip to La Paz.  The film work was exhilarating.  I now feel we have materials to make a worthy film and, for the first time in years, feel the passion and energy to embrace another big project.  We had planned this as a half-hour film, but I think it will be the length it needs to be.  (In between these bouts of passion, the economics of filmmaking and the juggling of day jobs sometimes seem like madness.  But we would never give up our favorite form of art and service!)

Yesterday I read that the Amazon has become a net creator of carbon dioxide, rather than a net replenisher of oxygen.  “The lung of the world” is being burned to the ground at an incredible rate.  The same thing is going on here, though the purpose is different.  The Yungas valley is so full of smoke right now – to prepare fields for sowing – that the smoke is blowing over the cordillera into La Paz.  Paige and Marcus have had coughs and runny noses virtually our entire time here, but there’s no remedy right now.

Paige has had a very uplifting experience volunteering in English classes at a secondary school.  The teacher, who may not be actually conversant in English (she speaks to Paige in Spanish), is using Paige to model pronunciation and answer questions.  Paige sometimes plays soccer with the kids in the afternoons.  A boy asked her to a dance.  Kids talk about her in Spanish and she understands what they’re saying.  Needless to say, she is having a great time.

In a few days, we leave on a grueling bus ride (said to be 18 hrs. if we’re lucky) to the Amazon basin.  We’re hoping to go on a camping trip by boat into the jungle or go on a “pampas” trip, which is into the grassy wetlands where there are more animals to see.  We thought we wanted to go to the pampas (something about pink dolphins and alligators…), but now we’re dreaming of the jungle.  Also, I just read a write-up on the web by a woman who did both, she loved the jungle but not so much the pampas, where she swam with piranhas and pink dolphins.  It seems you can’t swim with one without swimming with the other.  Stay tuned for what the gang chooses.  We’re going to have a little council about it at lunch.

The trip to La Paz was high adventure.  We are indebted to our film assistant and niece, Elena, for being with the kids while we were gone.  Paige was also a help with Marcus.  She can be a wonderful big sister when she’s in the mood.  I had made a plan to sit in the front seat of a mini-bus (a mini-van rigged to stuff in 15 adults in five rows of seats) and interview a driver on the way to La Paz.  That driver didn’t appear during good daylight hours and the bus company absolutely refused to let me reserve a front seat on his or any other bus.  So, it was improvisation time, since I was due to leave and interview a bus driver on the way to La Paz.  John had bought a ticket for another bus days earlier and, miraculously, his assigned seat was the one I needed – the window seat in the driver’s row.  I had to talk a driver I’d never met into being an interview subject and having an unwieldy camera with an obnoxious proboscis (shotgun microphone) in his front seat.  The guy between us, a young Paceño, had to put up with it all.  They were wonderful and I got my interview, which was backlit much of the time, but it was a success all the same.  (We are realists and take what comes.)  It’s hard to film while driving on the camino de la muerte, because it’s very bumpy and dusty and we were packed in with no room to move.  I did not feel scared on the ride up, as the driver was skillful and careful.  Accidents on the road are attributed to mechanical failure, driver fatigue (there are only 10 feet of roadbed from rock cliff face to edge of abyss in a lot of places), and overloading of vehicles.  John’s bus ride up was an example of the latter.  Fifteen adults paid for the fifteen seats and then loaded up their “guaguas” (pronounced “wawas”, which means “children”).  That brought the load to 23 people.  These weren’t 8 small guaguas either, according to John.  The driver announced that they were overloaded but couldn’t bring himself to throw anyone off the bus.  So up they went, bouncing on the axles all the way to La Paz.  On the way, they passed the remains of a red truck that had plunged off a couple of days earlier.  There were two deaths.  The wreckage didn’t even look like a vehicle – it looked like a wad of tinfoil.

In La Paz, John and I had a happy reunion at a hotel.  It was like “date night” writ large – three whole nights to ourselves!  Of course, our idea of a date can be a little strange.  The first day we ran errands – replacing electrical supplies I had burned up the week before, buying alpaca sweaters (it’s still winter in the highlands) and peanuts and antibiotics and books, and doing some street videotaping.  We hired a driver to take us to Villa Fatima, where the minibuses arrive from Coroico and the wholesale coca market is located.  It’s an amazing place – a big building with multiple large rooms filled with big sacks of coca leaves.  Each bag (I helped a woman carry one) weighs 50 pounds.  Whole families who have grown their coca and brought it to market are encamped in there waiting for buyers.  They sleep and eat there.  And sometimes, as right now, the market is slow and they are forced to wait for days.  Nobody stopped us on the way in, but we were met at first with penetrating and sometimes hostile stares.  We were scolded by cocaleros, asked what we were doing, and told to go away.  Each time that happened – and as often as possible before it happened – we would undertake to explain that people in North America usually do not understand what coca is and they confuse it with cocaine.  The growers know this and have a lot to say about what coca is for them, in addition to being their sole source of support.  It has a lot of calories and nutrients and reduces both hunger and thirst, so it is their defense against suffering in lean times.  It also increases oxygenation efficiency, stabilizes glucose metabolism, reduces the risk of embolism, and on and on. We were uplifted by how people related to us after we explained our intentions – to help illuminate a confusing issue for North Americans whose leader, as Bolivians see it, endangers their livelihood.  The film is going to be about a lot more, of course, but this story is part of it.  The cocaleros suddenly opened up and were willing to talk on camera about their perspective and what coca means to their families and culture.  One man was so grateful he pressed a handful of coca leaves into John’s palm as a gift.  Naturally, I had to give them away in a matter of minutes because we do not want any drug-sniffing dogs in U.S. Customs to smell coca leaf residue in our luggage on the way back.  We drink the tea, no más.  One woman was particularly eloquent and it was sweet to be interviewing mothers right next to their children.  We were the only non-Bolivians there and the cocaleros in the Yungas selling room seemed to enjoy our relieving the monotony of their day.

The market was sleepy in the afternoon, so we were advised to return at 7 am when it opened.  We did, and this time we were stopped by officials who said no filming was allowed.  We made our case, showed our business card, and presto, we were in.  We did more interviewing and got more interesting images.  But there were no buyers….  Even though we had permission, it still felt like we could be stopped by police and asked for our footage, so we thanked everyone and left, feeling very lucky to have had such a wonderful experience with cocaleros from the Yungas and to have filmed with them.

We then interviewed the head of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the premier, foreigner-owned mountain biking operation that pioneered the ride down the “world’s most dangerous road.”  The interview was excellent and eroded some of the biases I had built up about the enterprise and what it means for Bolivia.  (Stay tuned for our finished film for the lowdown on that.)  We also had lunch with a new friend who is a consultant in democratic initiatives for USAID.  He is actually a free-lance and gets to do what he wants, but has USAID’s funding to finance it.  More erosion of my biases.  What he’s doing is truly wonderful.  He has lived in Bolivia for years, loves the country, and doesn’t do things that he thinks don’t or won’t work.  What USAID is doing in the way of support projects in the Yungas appears to be excellent, at least on paper – potable water, tuberculosis and leishmaniasis treatment, coffee bean processing mini-plants, road maintenance, school building, etc.  This is all welcome support, but the hope that it will result in voluntary coca eradication is a northerner’s dream, I think.  And because the farmers feel compelled to resist threats to their coca growing, the Bolivian government has for the time being given up both pesticides (which would poison the people) and forced eradication here.  But the pendulum swings back and forth and the bouts of violence that accompany the struggle over coca are unlikely to disappear.  The farmers we interviewed do not feel they have other options and have not had any “alternative agricultural” assistance offered to them.

La Paz is a city built in and up the steeps sides of a deep canyon at 13,000 ft,. with houses climbing the walls in all directions.  It’s gorgeous at night because there are twinkling lights all around.  There’s a wealthy zone called El Prado and many more rustic and poorer zones, along with fabulous decaying colonial buildings.  The taxi drivers stop for red lights much of the time during peak driving hours, and only when and if they feel they have to at any other time.  Hanging from the rearview mirrors of some buses and taxis is an air freshener – a cardboard Christmas tree cut-out decorated like an American flag.  Taxi drivers turn off the engine and coast downhill to save gas whenever they can.  There’s an incredible amount of jockeying where vehicles miss each other by about four inches.  Virtually no one wears seatbelts.  I asked a taxi driver about seatbelts and he said, “It’s not our custom.  They once tried to make us, but they gave up.”

Our USAID friend advised us to catch a glimpse of the US embassy in La Paz because it looks (embarrassingly) like a cross between a bunker and a high security prison.  Naturally, we had to go.  The windows look precisely wide enough to stick machine gun muzzles out of.  It’s surrounded by a tall, fortified security wall and takes up a large city block.  In the center, away from the walls, is the embassy.  Next door is a sweet-looking house that contains the British Embassy and has a “We are open to the public” sign on it.  We began to take video images of our embassy and were told by an armed police officer that photographing was forbidden.  We’re citizens of the US, we protested.  Absolutely not, he said.  It was discouraging (and yes, embarrassing) because of the level of paranoia.  We have the most highly protected building in the city and you can’t take a snapshot of it?

The Amazon high council decided we are going on a jungle tour.  Right now John, Paige and Elena are out filming the “new road”, the eternally unfinished one with asphalt, two full lanes, a locally mythologized “geologic defect” said to be irreparable (having to do with ground water and the hillside sliding down eternally in one stretch), and a significant World Bank debt.  The joke is that one day people here will be able to choose between the world’s most dangerous road and the world’s most expensive road, which half of them think is the more dangerous.  It’s a land of ironies.  When people aren’t joking about it, they’re mad at the self-dealing, embezzling contractors and politicians.

John’s going to regale you with the story of his bike ride down the road.  I was actually a bit more scared that day than he, because my jeep was frequently racing ahead to set up the next video shot.  This provided me with the experience of driving fast on the world’s most dangerous road.  I was in good hands, though, and I’ve grown quite fond of the road, except for the choking clouds of dust.  Today we gave new surgical masks to our favorite semáforo humano, the handsome Don Timoteo, to help him protect his lungs.

Hasta la próxima vez.  Con cariño –Beret


The mountain bike ride down the “world’s most dangerous road” was fun, challenging — and actually not all that dangerous.  Thousands of tourists do it every year, making the “death road” a well-known stop on the proverbial Gringo Trail through Latin America.  When we interviewed Alistair, the company owner (a very savvy New Zealander who was a management consultant before his midlife crisis) he was succinct about what the young backpacker tourist really wants – to be able to tell a good story “down the pub” when he gets home.  This person wants to be able to say, “No shit — there I was …”, and the predicate to that phrase cannot be “in a museum looking at this really cool rock.”  These folks are looking for bragging rights to something apparently hair-raising — but they also want to be relatively safe and comfortable while doing it.  They don’t actually want to be in danger on the world’s most dangerous road.  So this particular company (one of several plying this rich trade) markets its services, paradoxically, on the basis of safety.

And I, who unlike most young backpackers have my lovely spouse and two beautiful children (not to mention my other beloved family, friends, and the last 30-40 years of my life) awaiting at the other end of the ride, did not want to be in danger either.  So I was happy to benefit from all of the precautions that were taken on the ride.  Because the road is mostly a single-lane shelf with several-hundred-meter plunges around its curves, they sent riders ahead with radios to advise of oncoming traffic.  We were alerted by a system of whistles when to get off the road into the periodic lay-bys whenever a vehicle approached.  A sweeper guide and a support vehicle trailed us to take care of any stragglers or flat tires.  They also had a full first-aid kit and a rope-ascent kit complete with a backboard in case of accidents.  We were made to stop about every fifteen minutes to keep the group together and keep everyone from getting too tired.  The bikes, helmets, and other equipment were of top quality and fully maintained every night between groups of riders.  So with the risks of oncoming traffic, equipment failure, and excess fatigue nearly eliminated, all we had to do was concentrate on riding within the margins of a dirt road no steeper, narrower, or more winding than most jeep roads in Colorado.

In fact, the biggest challenge was NOT deviating one’s gaze from the thirty feet of dirt straight in front of you, because that would distract you from your task of NOT riding off the edge.  It would also scare you witless.  So the whole thing was an exercise in client-management for the tour leaders and anxiety-management for the participants.  It also had the corollary effect of nearly eliminating Bolivia from the experience.   You couldn’t look at the countryside very much, other than at the stops.  You were insulated from any real contact with Bolivians (the main guide was Belgian, and his two Bolivian helpers were too busy racing ahead and keeping us safe to have any real interaction).  Once we reached the valley floor, we were given celebratory beers and t-shirts proclaiming “I Survived the World’s Most Dangerous Road” (complete with a photo taken by a Bolivian woman who worked a “saucy wench” act in order to keep the company coming back to her roadside stand instead of the fifteen others who weren’t seeing any of our money).  We were then whisked up to Coroico for a buffet, shower, and swimming pool for two hours (at the same hotel where we’ve been living, as it happens).  Then, for most of the group, it was back on the bus to return to La Paz the same night.  Thus, not only can you tell other travelers and friends you rode the “road of death,” you can also say you’ve “been to Coroico” as part of the deal.

So when we asked Alistair if the riders generally learn something about themselves, or about Bolivia, in the course of the ride, his response was cynical: “You mean, do they think about the fact that there are people who live here, and have to take this road for their livelihood, and who are actually scared of it, but have no choice?  No, these backpackers are generally shallower than you give them credit for.  They don’t typically make that connection.”  To which — having now done the ride and met the people in my group, most of whom did not seem shallow to me — I would now respond that the tour is designed to avoid that connection.  But then again, to allow for such a connection would probably make the ride less popular, less lucrative, and would expose the customers to more of the actual danger the Bolivians are dealing with.

So there you have it.  “No shit, there I was . . . .”  And I have to admit, it was a blast!

It is also somewhat surreal living an entire month in a tourist hotel where these mountain bikers come and go like tides.  They arrive dead tired and jagged from adrenaline, eat their food, discover the pool is cold, receive a few chuspi bites, and then are gone.  Only a few of them stay overnight.  The hotel owners are resentful that most go back to La Paz the same day, and many blame a conspiracy between the bike companies and the La Paz hotels for this phenomenon.  To which bike-entrepreneur Alistair replies, “If Coroico would come up with something interesting for these backpackers to DO, maybe more of them would stay.”  So if Coroico takes this advice, I guess we’ll soon have the “world’s most dangerous waterfall,” or the “world’s most dangerous riding stable,” or “the world’s most dangerous coca field,” or, more plausibly, the “world’s most dangerous buffet.”  Although our hotel is not in the running for this moniker (we’ve only gotten sick once, from another restaurant down the hill), our place may claim the title for the “world’s strangest versions of western dishes.”  We regularly eat what is surely intended to be European comfort food, such as scalloped potatoes or lasagna, but made with ingredients about which we can only speculate.  It’s a bit like watching “Bambi” dubbed into Serbo-Croatian.  Last night there was a casserole that after some discussion we dubbed “beetloaf.”

Con mucho cariño,


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Bolivia Letter #5

Dear family and friends,                                        July 29-August 5, 2006

John here.  This will be a challenging letter to write, as it is likely to be composed in pieces from various internet cafes, using kezboards that are cleverlz rearranged so as to make my favorite punctuation, such as dashes, semicolons, and parentheses, unavailable.  Actually, this may be the universe telling me, just one noun and verb per sentence, PLEASE!  Oh, and as you maz have noticed, on this particular kezboard, y is z.  I will probablz go back and clean up all the transposed zs and ys from this document before zou read it, but then again, I may leave them just to make up for all those missing parentheticals.

We are now in Rurrenabaque, a town in the upper Amazon basin.  We arrived this morning after a 16-hour bus ride on dirt roads.  We knew the ride would be gruelling, and we told Paige and Marcus ahead of time that it is often the bus rides that give one the most enduring travel stories later on.  This one began by taking us farther down the same steep canyons and steep dropoffs that characterize the “road of death.”  It’s the same road, after all, just without the bicycles or the hype.  Then, after darkness fell, the canyons widened, the curves lengthened, and we went down, down, down in a series of steep winding descents that seemed to go on all night.  I kept thinking, we must be at sea level by NOW, but there always seemed to be more altitude to lose.  The bus, a Volvo that in a prior life was a fancy tourist rig but is now a grimy shadow of its former self, did well with the steep grades, and the driver stopped to pick up everyone along the way who needed a ride.  As a result, the aisles were packed, and I spent some of the time marvelling at the fortitude of people standing on an all night bus ride.  The extent of my empathy, however, did not reach actually offering anyone my seat.

There is something about an old bus travelling an old road that is symbiotic and very alive.  The bus and the road have worn deep grooves into each other through endless repetition of the same journey.  Some places are worn smooth and comfortable, others raw and sore.  The bus and the road talk to each other, familiar and complaining, like an old couple sharing their too-small bed on a hot night.  Every noise is part of the conversation, from the rumble and squeak of the rocks jarring the suspension to the rattle of windows that long ago lost their gaskets.  The “music” one hears through the blown stereo system is merely the upper register of this deeper song.  Last night it was an endlessly repeated cumbia, a three-beat rhythm limping like a lame horse or a loose axle, the bass and guitar grinding over the transmission, the singer’s tale of loyalty in the face of mistreatment rising above the throaty backup of the engine pulling over a grade.   There was a period, somewhere between the fourth and the eighth hour of last night’s journey, where it all felt deeply soulful.  By the end, of course, as the fatigue of the ride approached nausea, there was nothing poetic about it.  One gets off such buses with a mix of gratitude and revulsion at an adventure that ends with too much intimacy.

Beret will write her half of this letter after we return from our three-day jungle tour that begins tomorrow, so I’ll save the rest of Rurrenabaque for her.  Instead, I want to tell you about my little experience with the evolution of the expatriate psyche.  We saw this a lot on Saipan, the island in Micronesia where we lived in the 90s.  A foreigner arrives and, at first, is idealistically in love with the local people and culture.  Then, the glow of feeling that the local people are “just like us,” it begins to dawn that they are also NOT just like us in certain ways.   In particular, the issue of trust becomes very sensitive, as the foreigner tries to be accepted and liked, but perceives that locals do not trust him, and that some locals themselves behave in ways that are not trustworthy.  Also, the foreigner begins to see local customs that no longer appear picturesque and deeply spiritual, but rather, wrong, self-defeating, perhaps even – ahem, er, — ignorant.  A cynical, judgmental attitude takes over, as the foreigner begins to decide that he “knows” these people.  Some expats never abandon this cynical stance.  Others work through and past it.  But it takes time.

So what does this have to do with me?  Well, it started with the burning.  Before we left Coroico, the smoke in the valley below our hotel had gotten so intense that you couldn’t see the mountains on the other side.  This smoke is caused by the indiscriminate burning of fields and forests as part of traditional agriculture.  The local press reported the other day that the Amazon, often described as the “lung of the world,” has become a net exporter of carbon dioxide.  From our observation point in the Yungas, it seemed that the burning was giving the entire region, and everyone in it, a serious smoker’s hack.  The kids have not been able to shake their coughs acquired earlier this summer, and now Elena and I have it too.  So I have begun to get very judgmental about why in hell in this day and age people still think indiscriminate burning is an okay thing to do?  I tend to think that in the cosmic Bridge game Earth trumps Culture, thus my stance of cultural respect stops when it appears that the cultural practice is harming the Earth.  Not to mention my lungs.

Second is the trust thing.  We foreigners tend to be busy people who want to “get a lot done.”  Beret and I came back from La Paz with a large to do list of people we wanted to interview and footage we wanted to “get.”  We hoped to tick a series of items off this list before taking our “vacation” (I can hear snorts of derision from beyond the Northern horizons at the idea that this whole summer has NOT been a vacation) to the Amazon.  But, of course, the people we wanted to interview didn’t return our calls, weren’t in their offices when they “said they would be,” had unexpected family obligations, etc.  So, we didn’t accomplish much of our “list,” and we now realize that we will have only ten days in Coroico to do all this filming when we get back.  My response?  Of course, “they” are doing it on purpose.  “They” expect me to fulfil promises but don’t expect the same of themselves.

Underneath all of this, of course, is my sense of anxiety and loss.  Our trip will end soon, and we are unlikely to get past the outer vestibule of this culture in the short time we have.  Which was, of course, predestined to be true. Bolivia is a landlocked country in more senses than geographical.  Other than the initial Spanish conquest and the silver boom of the first fifty years of the colonial period, the country has received virtually no immigration in the past 500 years.  The few foreigners who come are almost uniformly interested in removing natural resources on terms favorable to the foreigner, or in “doing good” in ways that have often come to grief for the locals.  Add to that the current policies of the US administration (when we tell people we’re from the States, there is usually a hitch in the conversation as the other person tries to think of a polite response to such an embarrassing admission), and it is completely predictable that people would have enormous trust issues in talking openly with us.  In fact, we did predict it.  Yet my frustration is hard to escape, and I realize that one of its forms lately has been to become rather judgmental about certain issues.  Still – what is so hard to understand about NOT BURNING DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN VALLEY!?  I guess the same thing that seems so hard for us up north to understand about not cooking the whole damn planet.  Sigh.

And I’ll try to end on a positive note.  Above Yolosa, the town at the end of the “road of death” that is threatened with economic ruin once the new road comes in, a few people are building new houses and planting new coca fields on the steep hillside of an old hacienda.  A few of these people’s parents worked these fields as slaves before the agrarian reform.  Now they are returning to the land as a bulwark against the possibility of future starvation.  We interviewed one of the community leaders, a guy named Freddy who drives a taxi, and whose family plants coca, and operates a truckers’ kitchen, to feed their two kids.  He is guarded and occasionally defiant in his relationship to outsiders who want to tell him how to run his life but don’t offer him practical means of following their advice.  But he was willing to trust us enough to bring us up to his coca field, to meet his kids, to wait for us to follow through on our promises to him.  When we return, we hope to learn more about Freddy and his half-dozen neighbors.  We will see if there is enough time.

P.S.  Now we’re back in Coroico after a glorious jungle trip that I promise to leave for Beret.  But I wanted to add one thought on the tone of “regret at not enough time” in the above.  What there HAS been wonderful time for, is each other.  We have all thrived on the easy intimacy, inside jokes, and sheer time with each other on this trip.  Getting to know Elena as an adult has been a particular pleasure.  And the time with Paige and Marcus has been priceless.  After we got back from our tour of the jungle the jungle, we passed a truck with an illuminated “Globetrotter” sign.  Marcus, walking beside me with his hand in mine, asked, “What’s a ‘globet rotter’?”  So we spent that evening making up rhymes about the dreaded Globet Rotter, who goes slinking down the slankey water.  On the way back from dinner, we passed a bar blaring out another cumbia, and Marcus and I danced in the street as we passed, doing our best Where the Wild Things Are stomp.

Con mucho cariño,



I wrote my half of our 5th travel letter in an internet cafe in Rurrenabaque and promptly lost it, so I have started over, longhand.  When I travel or live in certain parts of the world, I try to open myself to fate or, otherwise expressed, to what is.  It’s a kind of que será será relationship to things.  I had longed to return to Bolivia since John and I visited in 1988, so I wake up here feeling happy and lucky.  I am happy that my dream of turning Paige and Marcus into intrepid world travelers is coming true, most obviously with Paige.  Marcus was born with joie de vivre, finds pleasure wherever possible, and keeps close track of how many days of our 60-day trip have elapsed.  He misses his tree swing back home.

The Amazonian jungle of Bolivia provided an idyllic experience of wilderness and beauty.  It’s an eat or be eaten ecosystem.  If a plant doesn’t have spines or thorns, it’s poisonous.  The river Tuichi, where our albergue (camp) was located, is in Madidi National Park.  In this season (the year is divided into two seasons, wet and dry), the river is the color of red earth, and is shallow and wide.  Pilots of motorized canoes read the rills of the river to keep from running their outboard motors over the rocks.  We traveled up the Bení river to the Tuíchi in a motorized dugout canoe.  Our camp was four board-and-thatch buildings with screens for windows, including on the toilet doors, so you could always see who was where.  We came during a surazo, an unusual stretch of cold weather, that turned out to be a blessing, except at night.  I ended up sleeping in a hat, socks, cotton pants, a shirt, two layers of fleece jackets, and my raincoat.  John spent that night in a t-shirt under a light blanket.

Our guide, Diter, is a true naturalist and we learned a lot from him.  He always took the lead, in rubber boots (poisonous snakes usually attack the first pair of feet to disturb them) and with a machete for trail maintenance.  We tucked our pants into our socks because of the remarkable assortment of biting ants, vast highways of them.  The bite of the worst sends you into a fever and acute pain.  I tried to pry one off Paige’s sock with a stick, and discovered it had suction cups for feet.  What amazes me about the tropical jungle is the interdependence of species and the struggle to survive.  Tree and plant species that are perfectly harmless elsewhere are covered with sharp thorns.  I impaled my fingers on tree thorns as we watched a stampede of wild peccaries.  I like these pigs!  They make an incredible noise as they chomp down on hard palm nuts.  When spooked – they’re rather shy – they run, emitting the foulest smell imaginable from glands on their backs.  (I would rather have a day and a night with scent of skunk than fifteen minutes with odeur de peccary).

The bird calls in our camp were other-worldly and went on all through the night.  We saw leaf-cutter ants, hair-cutting bees (they can’t sting, but when threatened they attack your hair, snipping with a pair of scythes sticking out of their heads), gorgeous pairs of red, blue, and green macaws who mate for life, alligators (and their red eyes glowing in the dark), squirrel monkeys high in the tree canopy, and a caravan of irridescent caterpillars traveling by day and resting bunched up like freight cars at night.  We also saw ‘walking trees’ that grow multiple slender trunks from the top down and the mata-palos tree, a very thick, coiled vine that strangles trees the way an anaconda asphyxiates its prey.  The branches of a certain tree, when cut clear through, drain a liquid that looks and tastes like water.  Paige loved drinking this tree water.  Marcus’s favorite moment was swinging on a thick vine over a creekbed as if he were Tarzan.  Actually, we all liked that.  I could not manage to watch my feet and head at the same time, and whacked the latter on low-hanging branches more than once.

Camp was very appealing. There was cold-water plumbing because of a well and a generator they turn on once a day to pump water into a gravity tank.  The kitchen stove and refrigerator were powered by a propane canister.  The only light was from candles.  We had picked a luxury tour, which means life preservers in the canoe, mosquito netting on the beds (more for dengue fever than for malaria), and good food, including a massive catfish the cook caught in the river.  Backpacker and budget travelers are also served, and they get what they pay for.  We saw a completely overloaded canoe full of tourists heading out on a tour with no life preservers and the boat so low in the water that one tourist’s shirttails were dragging in the river.

I have wanted to write about the domestic side of life in Bolivia, both for Bolivians and for affluent tourists like us.  As you gathered from John’s description of people standing all night in the aisle of a long-distance bus, transportation is a challenge, including the expense and difficulty of getting products to market, let alone out of the country.  (The national airline nearly imploded not long ago, due to having only two functioning planes and a cash shortage.)  Money is clearly a challenge, as many Bolivians work 12-hour days for $2 to $4 a day.  Some kids in Yolosa who should be in secondary school aren’t because their parents can’t afford the half-price bus fare of 37 cents a day.  The ‘bus’ is a truck with a lot of students crammed in the bed, standing up for the 20-minute ride to Coroico and holding onto a lattice of bars.  Money presents a different challenge for tourists, as the communication infrastructure and banking situation generally make it impossible to use credit cards or traveler’s checks outside of major cities.  Major tourist destinations do not rank as major cities, by the way.  The only bank I saw in Rurrenabaque hangs a “Visa / Master Card CASH ADVANCES” sign outside it to tease tourists.  As I suspected, only people with Prodem cards (the name of the bank) can get cash advances, and no tourist has this card.

Houses in the Yungas are usually constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and usually have concrete or earth floors.  A thin stucco-like facade fooled me in the beginning, but now I know better.  The older colonial buildings have walls two feet thick.  In Amazonas, many houses are made out of thin, loose boards (with daylight and breezes filtering through the cracks) and thatched roofs.  Less common are bamboo pole or brick houses and tin roofs.  Where we stayed, Paige and Elena and I concluded that there’s at least one chicken for every inhabitant.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the quiet dirt streets.  Some people have outdoor earthen ovens or cook over open fires.  In Coroico, many people cook on a two-burner stove attached to a propane canister, our equivalent of a camping stove.  Grocery stores here have a small but fascinating range of goods, and stores called “bazars” have mind-boggling collections of life’s other necessities, from pots and pans to safety pins, batteries to bowler hats, and fireworks to flashlights.  On the street, you occasionally see a whole, carefully skinned pig’s head or a hand-cart with open bags of vibrantly-colored spices.  At home, people in towns usually have a cold water tap and sink, but a great many of the people not in cities do not have a plumbed bathroom.  We watched a man build his family’s bathroom, a tiny adobe building with no water and a hard-dirt floor.  It’s very close to the family’s house and I wonder how it’s going to function as a bathroom….

Refrigerators are a luxury, so food is blissfully fresh.  (That chicken in your lunch soup lost its head at dawn).  Our lovely hotel in Coroico has a laundress who washes acres of sheets, towels, and bedspreads in two utility sinks.  It can take days for clothes to dry on clotheslines and until we asked for faster service, it took four days to get our clothes washed, squashed, and returned.  Cleaning is often a matter of sweeping and ‘throwing water’.  In fact, in public bathrooms with dry toilets and a single water tap, there are signs begging users to ‘throw water’.

In Rurrenabaque in the Amazon, we decided to splurge on the hotel.  You probably know this feeling – that little yen for luxury, something that might remind you of home. In my case, this means enough decent toilet paper (since toilet paper is on the list of “chemical precursors” used by illegal cocaine labs, you need a special permit to have or transport more than 20 rolls), a good shower, sheets that actually stay on the bed all night, and a warm swimming pool.  In Rurre, this meant $10 per night per person, including breakfast, and gave us the luxury of two rooms.  John picked the gorgeous Hotel Jatatal based on a recommendation from the jungle tour people and pretty ‘tropical paradise’ pictures on a website.  The hotel turned out to be in the quiet town of San Buenaventura, on the other side of a wide river from Rurrenabaque, the Amazon tour take-off point.  There’s almost no commerce on the Jatatal side of the river, so every time we wanted lunch or dinner or a bottle of drinking water, we crossed the river in a boat.  When we first arrived at the hotel, there were no guests, the pool had no water in it, and the cook was AWOL.  It felt like the hotel that time forgot.   We ended up liking it, though, and returned to the Jatatal after our time in the jungle.  It was so peaceful there.

The boat that ferries people back and forth across the river is a dugout canoe with built-up sides and a thatch canopy.  It holds up to 40 people, costs 12 cents per ticket, and has no pretension to safety (you can watch the guy running the outboard motor light up his cigarette two feet from the greasy gas can that shouts ‘DANGER: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE’ in English).  A handful of life-preservers are tied (for show or symbolic purposes) so securely to guy wires it would be very hard to extricate them in an emergency.  At night, the boat is lit by one orange and one green lightbulb powered by a car battery.  On the bow, there’s room for one motorcycle (the local land taxi and preferred form of transportation for families with up to two young children), a hand-cart, or a merchant’s wares.  We found the boat irresistible and loved riding in it.

We also fell in love with the sleepiness of our hotel and its hammocks and sky chairs.  The Jatatal is a four-star hotel (perhaps because of the not-plugged-in aircon units and mini-fridges), which makes it a great portrait of the meeting ground of form and function in Bolivia.  In form, it is very beautiful, at least on the outside and in the dining room.  Furniture is artesanal and made from local jungle wood. It has hot water showers (in six weeks, we have yet to encounter hot water at any sink in Bolivia) by virtue of a device known as a calefon, which heats water as it comes through the showerhead.  Years ago, these devices were known for giving 220-volt shocks to the unwary, but the design has improved.  However, if you want warm or hot water, you have to keep the water flow low.  It’s a relationship of inverse proportions: more water volume equals less heat.  A heating coil in a shower head can do only so much, even if it’s 5400 watts, as ours was.  Turning it on caused every bulb in the building to flicker and dim for the length of the shower.

For much of our time at the Jatatal, no one was taking showers — because there was no water.  The water was turned off for most daylight hours because the hotel did not have enough water pressure to refill the swimming pool with the equivalent of a garden hose and have water for the rooms.  So much for my longing for a couple of days in the lap of luxury.  We watched the progress of the pool filling – about three inches a day – and concluded that it would take 10-14 days at that rate to fill it.  The form versus function issue is intriguing and sometimes comical.  The rooms have a wooden door and a screen door, but you can’t close both at the same time.  When the screen door is open because the wooden door is closed (as at night), it bangs in the breeze.  The Jatatal’s showers seem designed to spread water all over the floor.  You get the ‘throw water’ effect with no way to dry the floor in a very humid (and mildew-prone) climate.  And along the way, you begin to ask… why, why, why?

Breakfast at the Jatatal was also interesting, most likely because what foreigners want to eat for breakfast is not what Bolivians necessarily want to eat.  We’d be served butter and jam, but no bread, or bread with no butter or jam.  The last morning, they forgot there were five of us, set the table for four, and failed to bring silverware or bowls (although there were corn flakes).  And while there was hot milk, nearly frozen milk, and tepid water in a carafe, there was no tea and no coffee.  We were at that moment on our way to board the dreaded bus back to Coroico and decided to stop for coffee during the long walk to the bus depot (we couldn’t all fit on a moto-taxi after all, and never saw a car taxi).  We asked for cafe con leche (coffee with milk) at a cafe, but were served cups of hot water and a thick sort of coffee concentrate syrup.  John politely asked, “Hay leche?”, which is code for “Could we have some milk?”  The waiter said yes – he had also indicated when taking our order that we could have cafe con leche – and then he didn’t bring any or indeed charge us for more than coffees without milk.  This is an example of “yes means no,” a language I am becoming more adept at decoding the longer we are here.

I have been urging John to write about food, as he sometimes lapses into hysterical laughter at some of the cook’s valiant efforts to create vegetarian entrees here at our hotel-home in Coroico.  Memorable highlights include a stew of leftovers from the salad or vegetable selection of the day before topped by sodden french fries floating on a sea of broth.  Today was truly creative: half a boiled potato stacked with half a hard-boiled egg, peanut paste, and a slice of sour-tasting local cheese.  It was weird, but it gets high marks for protein content.  Paige and Marcus are able to survey the entire buffet here and walk away in dismay.  John and I eat more healthfully here than in Colorado, as there are fabulous fresh fruits and unprocessed, pesticide-free foods.

I am now writing from the far side of the dreaded bus trip back to Coroico, so I can say we survived.  I don’t know about the people who stayed on the bus all the way to La Paz, however.  It dawned on me – with some horror – that our driver, who had driven 16 hours with minimal breaks by the time we got off, was going to start up the camino de la muerte in a state of utter exhaustion.  His wife (who also served as his ayudante or helper) was working hard to keep him awake by talking to him and fiddling with the radio as their four-year-old daughter slept on a shelf right above and behind his head.

Only about 10 percent of the road system is paved and vehicles get horribly beaten up by these long hauls.  We had tire changes, ropes being tied ominously around parts of undercarriages, and other sorts of adventures in both directions.  John briefly toyed with flying back, but that is possible only on the military airline (aging prop planes anyone?) on Rurre’s grass and dirt runway and only 2 or 3 times a week and only if the grass isn’t wet.  It’s not cheap either, and you land at the La Paz airport and have to drive down the camino de la muerte to get back here.  Elena and I thought about that and vetoed the flying idea.  Besides, the bus costs only $9 and it’s expensive to fly.  We got to Yolosa at 2:30 am last night, a mere two and a half hours past the scheduled time, and had arranged to have a jeep taxi waiting for us. The ride to Rurrenabaque was the third circle of hell, but the return was merely the second circle.  The trip was more than worth it and we’re glad to be home again.  We will be back in Colorado in less than two weeks, full of gratitude at having had such a delicious break from northern obsessions with individualism, efficiency, the latest machinery, and speed.

P.S.  Today was Bolivia’s national independence day, all 181 years of it, and there was a moving and shared dignity, pride and celebration at being Bolivians and being free.  The spirit of autonomy from all other nations is palpable.  I felt a pang that I feel so ambivalent about my country, especially our foreign policy, and wish I could feel the pride I saw today.  An Afro-Bolivian man sang to the assembled crowd a song whose most important lyric was “Me gusta la palabra ‘libertad’” (“I like the word ‘liberty’).  Coming from someone whose people have been free for only 54 years, it was deeply affecting.  John was filming.  I looked over at him at the end the song and his eyes were misty with unshed tears.  The people take care of themselves and do it with dignity.  Given how hard they have to work to do it, witnessing it has made me fall in love with them and their country.  I hope I can bring some of their spirit home with me and weave it into the threads of our lives.



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Bolivia Letter #6

Dear family and friends,                                                     August 11-12, 2006

John here.  Today is the last free morning I will have to gaze out from our upper-story perch, past the blooming lilies in our window box to the layers below: the banana groves below our building, the bright blue of the pool, the brick walls, tile roofs, and flame trees of Coroico, and the smoky void of the valley below.  Today the haze has lifted a bit.  One can dimly see mountains across, with the camino de la muerte running like a ragged scar up one valley and the new road coiling more fluidly up the next canyon over.

The new road, still under construction, reminds me of the patch of I-70 that runs through Glenwood Canyon in western Colorado.  A series of bridges and parapets hangs off the side of the slope as it switchbacks eight times before entering into a 1.5 km tunnel at the top of the mountain.  Drainage culverts, concrete retaining walls and deep anchors seek to restrain the crumbling slopes above and below.  It really is an engineering marvel – or will be, if it ever opens to the public, and if it doesn’t come crashing down.  There is a massive section where the hillside has refused to stabilize, and those big anchors and the concrete facing they are meant to secure have already buckled and fallen into the roadbed below.  Traffic on that stretch is being routed into a jouncing single-lane detour that reminds one of the camino de la muerte the whole thing is supposed to replace.  People are also skeptical that these high bridges will survive the heavy traffic and deferred maintenance that the new road is likely to experience.  Communities at the bottom of the valley have suffered landslides, massive runoff, and environmental contamination during the construction phase.  The road has been in the works since the 1970s and has cost $174 million so far, or nearly $4 million per kilometer.  The new president has issued an ultimatum that it must be finished and opened to the public by October of this year, come hell or high water.  I’m not sure that this pressure will turn out to be a good thing or not, depending how many corners get cut to meet the deadline.   Still, many people will be thrilled finally to have a modern highway between Coroico and La Paz.  Others deeply distrust the safety of new road and have proclaimed their intentions to keep using the old road indefinitely.

However, the events of this week tested people’s faith in tradition over modernity.  A full-sized bus, overloaded with nearly sixty people, went over the edge of the camino de la muerte and fell more than 200 meters, killing 28 and injuring the rest.  It was big enough news to make the La Paz papers, which reported that the roadbed at the site of the accident was exactly 3.67 meters wide, whereas the bus in question measured 2.5 meters.  Still, survivors recounted that the bus was speeding and had been passing other vehicles somewhat recklessly earlier in the trip.  There had been a delay leaving La Paz and the driver was apparently trying to make up time.

I accompanied Freddy, one of our film’s main characters, to the site two days after the crash.  His first cousin Sixto, a man exactly Freddy’s age with several kids, had been the relief driver on the bus.  Freddy had spent the previous evening trying to reach Sixto’s wife with the news of her husband’s death.  With all of the television and radio reports, she must have heard already, and was probably en route to La Paz, where the bodies had been taken.  The accident took place in late afternoon, and as the traffic police in Yolosa lack even a vehicle to respond to events such as this, it had taken some time for rescue operations to get underway.  First responders had to ride up in buses or private trucks to reach the scene.  One of the guides from Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the company that ran the bike tour I took down the road a few weeks ago, had tried to reach the wreck with his climbing rope and rescue backboard.  But the rope was only 120 meters long and he couldn’t get down to the victims.  There was no light to continue the rescue at night, so everyone who was not hauled up by full dark had to spend the night in the wreckage.

Freddy and I drove up the road from Yolosa in silence.  When we pulled up at the site, a minibus from the company whose bus had gone over was parked by the edge with a blue polypropylene rope tied to its bumper, extending taut over the edge.  An employee assigned to guard the wreck explained that the bodies and injured had been retrieved via this rope, up a diagonal route hacked through the brush by machete.  The actual place where the bus had gone off was fifty feet further up, a swath of shorn-off trees and scrub extending down, down into a debris field barely visible in the forest below.  There was nothing that resembled a bus.  Freddy and the guard stood at the edge, pointing to bits of wreckage and talking quietly about how the bus could have gone off.  In a few minutes, a cargo truck full of people arrived, and everyone climbed out to look.  One of them made a harsh comment about bus drivers going too fast, and the company guard flew into a rage. He swore at the man and shouted at him to wait until the accident had been investigated before condemning the driver, who apparently had been his close friend.   The rest of the group, mostly women and kids, stood quietly at the edge and just stared down, eyes wide.

I am tempted to write that they stared down “as if looking into their own graves,” but in truth it is hard to know what they felt.  Some were just rubberneckers with no personal connection to the crash other than the fear that it could happen to them.  Others, like Freddy and the company guard, were looking at the place where close relatives or dear friends had just died.  Freddy told me later that his cousin Sixto had been a champion boxer, and that he, Freddy, and another cousin used to spar as kids, to become tough enough that the older boys wouldn’t pick on them.   Freddy’s sad eyed brightened as he talked about how they were the “three terrors” of the boxing circuit for a while.  “Our fantasy of youth,” he called it, remembering days before the need to support a family blotted out more colorful ambitions.  Another friend, Hans, a German guy who has lived in Coroico eighteen years and Latin America for nearly thirty, suggested only half facetiously that at this time of year, Pachamama, the spirit of Mother Earth, gets hungry and demands blood.

Thursday, Elena and I had a different sort of encounter with life’s mystery.  The town of Coroico, and our hotel above it, are built on the slopes of Uchumachi, the tallest mountain and the spiritual “uncle” of this valley.  We had been planning to hike to the top since we arrived.  An acquaintance told us early in the summer that there was a magic forest up beyond where you can see from below, and that once we entered the forest we would not be walking on the ground any more, but walking “on top of” the trees.  She told us that we would not find the top of the mountain, but would get lost in the forest.  I listened politely, mentally identified this woman as a credulous New Ager, and somewhat lost interest in climbing Uchumachi.  Then when the smoke got bad, it seemed that it would be impossible to “see anything” from the top, and so our motivation declined further.

Well, all I can say now is that this woman was right.  It was one of the most strange, beautiful hikes of my life.   We hiked straight up from the hotel, past the Stations of the Cross and the “Calvary” shrine that marks the overlook point above Coroico, as it does above many Latin American cities and towns, then further up past the cell phone towers that have been recently erected in homage to the new gods of technology.  The trail was open, steep, eroded and rocky.  An entire hillside had been burned to our left, and we climbed past it with the sense that this hike would hot, tiring, and a sad illustration of how badly this place is being damaged by local “agriculture.”

But soon the trail entered a meadow of ferns and flowers, followed by a thick grove of bamboo and low trees.  We emerged again on a narrow ledge over a high slope.  Knowing we had until lunch to get to the top and return, I looked up and saw a steep knoll above, covered by brush.  Instead of ascending the knoll, the trail veered further left and entered thick trees.  Soon we were inside an ancient, moss-covered, deep forest.  The canopy blotted out most of the light, and the air was cool and cleansed by transpiration.  Underfoot was a layer of mulch, fallen branches, moss, and leaves so thick that we had no idea where the actual earth was.  It actually sprung and flexed underneath us.   The trail cut so deeply into the steep slope that the hillside above created a roof, with roots and moss trailing down.  Soon we entered a shallow valley and the trail leveled off.    We seemed to be entering some high undulating plateau, but the forest was so thick that it was impossible to sense the topography more than thirty feet away. It was utterly quiet.

Even more odd, the trail seemed to be getting fainter.  We hadn’t “arrived” anyplace, but the well-marked and maintained trail we had been following had gradually faded out, and we were trying to keep on what now looked like a winding game trail.  Every few feet a machete scar on a tree indicated that we were still on a human-made pathway, but otherwise we became uncertain we were on a trail at all.   Then, at a certain point, the ground pitched downward, and the trail seemed to die out altogether.  The woods were very thick, with branches woven together and moss draping everything so that we had no idea whether we were on, or even near, a “summit.”  You couldn’t see the sun or orient your direction.   If we went forward it felt as though we risked becoming truly lost.  So we turned around while there was still a trail to follow.

Growing up in the Rockies, I have always experienced climbing a mountain as an accomplishment.  One stands at the summit like a little god, looking out over a vast landscape that one feels, openly or secretly, one has dominated.  People talk about “bagging” peaks as though they were hunters after Big Game.  Even for those of us who pretend to a higher level of enlightenment, at the very least, when you climb a mountain in Colorado, you know – and it matters — whether you’ve actually climbed it or not.  But hiking up Uchumachi turned all of these notions upside down.  The trees were above the “timberline,” not below it.  The higher we climbed, the more enclosed, enveloped, and lost we became.  We never got to the “end” of our journey, or if we did, there was nothing to indicate that we had.  Instead of feeling like we were gods, it seemed we had been wandering through the house of a god who had graciously allowed us to slip out the way we came.

For our last adventure of our last week in town, we went last night to Yolosa to film the town’s annual procession of the local Virgin.  This year’s festival is perhaps Yolosa’s last, since most people hope to relocate to a new, modern truck-stop facility after the new road opens.  The Interamerican Development Bank is financing the new service center as an effort at “social/environmental remediation,” in the same category as cleaning up the diesel dumps and trash heaps left by the construction crews.  But the loan disbursement appears to be held up pending the completion of various “conditions precedent.” Thus, if the new road does open this October, it looks like people in Yolosa will be left in the lurch for a year or more, with their current properties nearly worthless and with no money or infrastructure to start their businesses over at the new site.  Anticipating this risk, Freddy and others have built new houses and planted new coca fields on the slopes above Yolosa.  If the new world fails, they can always rely on the old, at least for a margin of survival.

I had wanted to film this procession of the Virgin as a kind of funeral for the town, coming as it did on the heels of a funereal week.  Once again, I had it all wrong.  People spent all evening decorating the little concrete shrine at the crossroads of town with balloons, flowers, candles and ribbons.  Then the youth dressed in bright Aymara costumes that the town seemed to have stashed away for this celebration every year.  The boys wore bright orange with woven hats decorated with mirrors in front, and wielded toy pickaxes.  The girls wore deep red and purple, and carried shawls filled with flowers and feathers forming cornucopias.  After the Virgin had been appropriately paraded through town and placed in her niche, the kids and young adults began their dance.  Called the Salaque, it seemed like an ancient harvest dance, as first the boys and then the girls weaved joyfully back and forth in a hoeing and gathering motion.  A brass band followed behind, pounding out the same urgent melody.  They danced past the overloaded buses and weary drivers waiting to grind up the camino de la muerte, past the dining tables and kiosks that are slated for abandonment, past the little cantina where the bicyclists get their ceremonial beer and t-shirts, and over the river that has washed away every attempt to provide decent sanitation for the town.  They danced up to a shrine that, in the name of a father, mostly venerates a Mother.  The elders surrounded them, women in their finest pollera skirts, shawls and bowlers, men in open, starched shirts.  And they kept dancing.

I’ll end by thanking you for your indulgence in listening to us this past two months.  We discovered a while ago that travel stories are better when they’re fresh, and writing them down has helped us give shape to our experiences as we live them.  Thanks for coming on the ride with us.  In a week, we’ll be back to the web of work, schedules, activities, and worries that dominate our lives at home.  We and the kids will scatter into the separate spaces of our enormous house.  Money will resume its “natural,” daunting scale.  But we will have the images of our video, and the memories of our trip, to remind us.   Here’s hoping we remember.

Con mucho cariño,



I just read what John wrote and my heart is heavy again with the emotion of the bus accident.  As for the people of Yolosa, finding out there is money earmarked to help them with the road transition was like coming upon a miracle, as I fully expected they’d get nothing.  Once again this evening, we watched people bathing and washing clothes downriver from the raw sewage draining straight from the baño público, where 50 centavos (6 cents) buys you a length of pink toilet paper and a visit to a doorless stand-over-the-hole pit toilet in a line of such toilets.

This morning Paige and I did a walkabout with the video camera in hand, documenting “a day in the life of Paige” and recording various images on our way to the plaza.  We watched a man with an ancient treadle sewing machine sewing a cholla’s pollera, the gorgeous skirt many women wear here.  A man who works at the hospital saw the camera and invited us to interview accident survivors.  Fancy by Bolivian standards, the hospital is run by an Italian nun named Sister Rita.  There is one traumatólogo (as they call them here), no orthopedist, and there are dozens of broken bones….   The accident brought into sharp focus themes of our project and sharpened our resolve to make our return to La Paz on the new road.  The owner of our hotel has a pass to use the new road and has agreed to take us.  We are lucky in so many ways, and I don’t take it for granted.

Tonight the kids and I rode up the mountain in a mini-van driven by a taxista trying to save his tires from wear.  He careened from one side of the road to the other as he took the turns, so as to keep either the left or the right tires on the smooth, narrow edges (think deep gutter on one side, dropoff on the other) as much as possible.  That particular road is made of hand-laid river stones.  They are round, water-smooth, and most fit in your outstretched hand.  The driving was unnerving even when I figured out what he was up to, and I found myself thinking: Would you just cut that out?  But we were three of eleven passengers and so….

We have been visiting special places in our final days here.  We took a truck taxi (with Marcus standing up in the bed and loving it) all the way to Chairo, a tiny village next to a beautiful river which itself borders one of the Inca trails.  We went up the trail a bit and vowed to return to swim in the river.  We’re hoping to do that Sunday afternoon, our last afternoon here.  Tomorrow is the fiesta of Tocaña, where we will watch the Saya perform its unique music and dance, and celebrate and our friends there and say our goodbyes.

We visited the only local college, UAC Carmen Pampa.  It’s an incredible place – a new college, funded partly by USAID, and featuring an organic farm, a budding local entomology collection, and studies on whether chaqueo – the burning of land to prepare for planting – damages or enhances the soil.  The students, who clearly realize they are in a very special community, are required to be indigneous and the grandchildren of people who served under the hacienda system and were forbidden from getting an education.  In 1952, everything changed in what was essentially a social revolution. Bolivia’s current goal is a just, multi-ethnic society.  To this end, the head of the new Constitutional Reform group is an indigenous woman.  (There are “white” folks here, and they tend to live in big cities, have money, and drive “4 por 4” cars.)  Carmen Pampa’s mission is to inculcate in students a strong commitment to returning to their home communities to work, which means not drifting off to the cities in search of bright lights and better money.  It’s a beautiful dream and is working well for the students in education, veterinary science, and agronomy.  Paige is already planning to come back as a volunteer.  The fourth group at Carmen Pampa is nursing students.  We interviewed the program director and her two Afro-Bolivian students from Tocaña, who dance with the Saya.  They would love to create a health center in Tocaña, but it’s impossible.   I’m giving them – with instructions – medications and health-related items we brought with us, along with toys for kids.  We are also working on establishing reliable connections here so that if we’re able to support or find support for local education and health projects, we know whom to trust with funds.

As I mentioned before, a dollar goes a long way here.  Most of the hotel employees at the Esmeralda make about $3 a day, but since they work 13 hour days (from 7 am to 8 pm), it comes out about 2 Bolivianos an hour or 24 cents.  John cringes to think that he makes their monthly salary in under an hour at his law firm.  If we do get something worked out to support local endeavors, you are hereby invited to join us in watching our dollars do a lot of good. Bolivia has come a long way in recent years with literacy and child and maternal health, but the statistics are still painful.  A recent article in the newspaper indicated that fewer than 6 in 10 births are attended by a trained professional.  Nearly 20% of women are illiterate.  Infant mortality is about 1 in 20, I believe, and there’s a lot of malnutrition.  I think kids here do better than in many other parts of Bolivia, because there are so many fruit trees and nearly every family can grow some food or have chickens.  On the altiplano, the land is not so giving.

People here are self-reliant and uncomplaining.  They don’t expect help from anyone and they certainly don’t ask us for help.  (By this time in our stay in Ecuador, John had been petitioned to buy a new fire truck for the town.)  Bolivians are dignified, proud and resilient.  They are also optimistic.  I haven’t met a single one who doesn’t place hope in Evo Morales, the new president.  The word ‘communitarian’ keeps coming to mind, although for all I know I’ve transliterated it or made it up.  (Things happen to one’s English after a while.)  There’s something here that we found in the islands of Micronesia – contributing to the community is valued more highly than individualism.  Coriqueños have a great respect for old people and children, both of whom were the first to walk in the Día de la Independencia parade.  People here are even kind to animals, and we often see dogs eating bowls of leftover soup.  Every day is a chorus of sound.  In the night, the dogs make quite a racket.  At around four a.m., the dogs go to sleep and the cocks begin to crow.  By dawn, the Uchi bird has begun its raucous song and the hammering and pounding (Latin America is always under construction) begin….  This morning there was singing in the distance, the last hours of a wedding celebration that took place yesterday.

I will miss our unusual, intimate, always interesting life here, as you can surely tell.  I appreciate being witness to the distilled survival of my species and to having an opportunity to live in the moment.  There are many images I’ll carry away with me, such as people sitting at tables with manual typewriters outdoors in La Paz, filling out tax forms for people in the old manner of scribes writing love letters for those who never learned to write.  The police station in Yolosa, where all vehicles stop, has two officers at a small wooden desk in an otherwise empty room.  They have a cell phone, a light bulb overhead, and a Bolivian flag on their desk – and that’s all.  This evening, we saw a whole skinned pig lying for sale on a streetside table in Coroico, its head and feet in an unrefrigerated glass case.  We had two hours earlier seen a bunch of foraging pigs and nursing piglets in Yolosa; the life cycle of living things is always close at hand.  Driving down to Yolosa, we passed an open-topped cargo truck so overloaded with citrus and people that it tilted to one side and one of its wooden sides bulged ominously.  Even the local people were pointing at it with alarm.  We watched that truck stop and perform its ablutions in Yolosa and then chug off up the hill toward La Paz.  Say a prayer for them.

It’s true that reality and unreality are mixed together here, just as time takes on another way of being.  I have had the most amazing dreams since we came here.  Elena suggested it might be due to mefloquine, our malaria pills.  I think it’s something else, though, some internal change in the sense of the possible.  Last night I dreamed we had a new president in the U.S. – a good one, someone we were all excited about.  In the last week, two of my most beloved dead came back to life in my dreams — my great-aunt, who would be 106 if she were still alive, and my and John’s firstborn, our cat Rachel.  Most miraculous of all was the dream of being in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco with my cousin Marcus, for whom our Marcus is named, and a vast number of black-haired Aymaras and other Bolivians in traditional clothing.  It was snowing inside the cathedral and it was so beautiful we were all wild with joy.

Yes, thank you so much for sharing in our journey.  It has meant a lot to us to have your spirits near us through this time.

Yours ever,


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Bolivia Letter # 7 — 2011 Return

Queridos amigos y familiares,                 Bolivia — June 25-July 7, 2011

John here.  Today I have dined on tubers shaped like giant grubs, been savaged by sand-flies, and been kissed — and then slapped — by a very saucy squirrel monkey.  We are back in Bolivia’s Yungas Valley, where we spent two months in 2006.  During one of our letters home that summer, Beret said she would love to come back in five years to see how the valley had changed, how the place and the people weathered the moments of transition they were going through back in those days.   Well, as she does with many things to which Beret puts her mind, she has made it happen.  We are back to finish the documentary video projects we began back then, telling the story of the “world’s most dangerous road” and the people who earn their living from it, the tourists who flock from countries so safe that they must travel abroad to buy risk, mountain-biking down the road, while locals send their kids up the same road on rickety pickups to study their way to a better life.   And as we did five years ago, we are having a blast.

In 2006 we shot over 40 hours of video, and we came home with a sprawling sense of landscape, issues, and people.  But somehow, the story kept eluding us.  The raw footage split into two documentary film projects: the first, a simple portrait of dance and cultural resistance in the Afro-Bolivian village of Tocaña; the second, an unwieldy, double-plotted hodgepodge about adventure tourism, coca politics, and economic hardship on the “Road of Death.”  Since then, successive rough-cuts of these films have sat on the hard disks of our editing computer like overgrown adolescents in the basement, refusing to grow up, but too old to be still living at home.   Friends and colleagues would ask, “What are you working on these days?  How is that Bolivia thing going?”  And we would respond with embarrassment and later resignation about the fact that we were just plain stuck.

Then this year, Paige graduated from high school and went off on her first adventures of adulthood, and Marcus gathered his moxie to attend a month-long sleep-away camp.  So Beret and I decided to celebrate this taste of empty-nesting with a trip that would reconnect us to the days of travel before kids, when we blew with the winds of our own desires through Latin America, Africa, and Europe.  I’d only dimly remembered that sense of freedom, one of my chief pleasures in travel.  And coming back to Bolivia did not immediately present itself as the best way to regrow those wings of youth.  In fact, Bolivia felt a bit like the wall I had been banging my head against for the last five years, and part of me was at times ready to let go of the project, as a failed attempt to tell a story that just wouldn’t seem to fit together, a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle with only 389 pieces in the box.  But the one time I gave voice to that feeling, Beret looked at me in shock and said firmly:  “We are NOT giving up.  We need to go back.”

I knew this was right, but I didn’t know why it was right.  Because I didn’t really know how we were going to get unstuck.  When we visited in 2006, the old “Road of Death” was about to be replaced by a new, modern highway passing over a different route, which meant that the mountain-biking groups would no longer have to share the road with the buses and logging trucks that gave the experience its main ingredient of actual risk.   I mean, the road is still a steep, one-lane, dirt shelf with 200-meter cliffsides and frequent landslides.  But if you’re not at risk of being run off it by a gigantic bus on a blind corner, the challenge of staying on the road becomes much more manageable, and the “danger” recedes to a level not much greater than that presented by a jeep trail back home.  On the locals’ side of the equation, once the road was relocated, the town of Yolosa, where we had done most of our shooting, would suffer the loss of its principal means of livelihood.   We had later heard that, after the new highway opened in late 2006, Yolosa indeed seemed abandoned, and that the mountain biking companies had largely taken over the old route as their own theme park of perceived risk, an “authentic” travel experience with most of the authenticity now drained out of it.  If we went back to do more shooting, would these realities simply be confirmed, making our story less coherent, or perhaps more depressing, than ever?

Still, our curiosity, our resolve to finish, and our memories of love for this corner of the world brought us back.  Last Friday we flew through the fleshpots of Dallas and Miami, landing without a hitch in the wee hours in the thin, frigid air of La Paz.  Beret had dreaded this leg of the journey because of its extreme altitude (nearly 13,000 feet in La Paz and over 15,000 at the high pass leading to the Yungas), and her fears were not misplaced, as she developed a fierce headache during the first twenty-four hours.   With Beret abed, I had the first day to wander the city by myself, navigating the steep streets and profuse sidewalk commerce by memory from five years ago.  I needed a cheap wristwatch (one of my thief-deterrent strategies when traveling) and so I started hunting.  Shopping in La Paz is a completely asynchronous experience, in which past, present, and future coexist simultaneously.  On every sidewalk is a row of women, dressed in traditional pollera skirts and bowler hats, selling mostly fruit, root crops, and fried breads, as they have done for centuries.  Right behind them are businesses selling computers, cell phones, stove parts, treadle-powered sewing machines, ribbons and lace, huge bags of confetti for special occasions, raw fish, soccer jerseys, refrigerators, dynamite, dried llama fetuses, and pirated Lady Gaga CDs.   All of this commerce takes up any available pedestrian sidewalk space, so to navigate on foot you have to walk out in the street, next to the line of cars and buses easing their way past with polite taps on the horn and just inches to spare.  For relief from the congestion you can enter old stone buildings into labyrinths of kiosks selling bolts of bright fabric or auto parts, with high ceilings and staircases leading God knows where.  And each business, each half-block, sells almost exclusively one type of item, so if you want a cell phone you go to one stretch of stores, and if you want an MP3 player you go up a half-block farther.  I thought a cheap digital watch would be among the electronics vendors, but they kept telling me “Más arriba” (go higher), so I kept climbing the steep grades, stepping over sidewalk displays of bubble-gum and fried pigs’ trotters, alternately delighted and nauseated by the succession of smells, mystified at how so many vendors could keep afloat, and amazed at how tightly-organized it all seemed to be.  Finally, just after passing a kiosk that sold literally nothing but VHS video cables (hundreds of them, twisting like black snakes with white, red and yellow heads) I came upon a man sitting on the sidewalk behind a large glass case full of wristwatches, pocketwatches, analog, digital, cheap, fancy, every kind of watch I could desire.    Five minutes and $3 later, I was on my way back down, navigating in reverse order the succession of vendors (let’s see, did I turn left here at the toilet seats?) in order to find my way back to the hotel.

The next day, we hired a very calm, thoughtful driver to take us up over the pass and down to Yolosa.  We opted for the new road, which we had only seen part of in 2006, on a clandestine shoot before it opened.  It really is an engineering marvel, full of cantilevered bridges and switchbacks.  But it is no scarier than Loveland or Berthoud Pass in Colorado.  In order to round out our footage (and I confess, for the sheer I’m in Bolivia now and I get to do whatever the **** I want joy of it), we shot standing up through the sunroof as the high Andes rolled by, not quite managing to climb back inside before the drug checkpoints came into view.  But the narco police didn’t care.

We arrived at the Senda Verde Wildlife Refuge and Eco-Lodge, one of the new developments since we were last here, in a state of elation to be back.  I’ll let Beret tell the rest, except to say that it is challenging to maintain your composure while conducting a video interview with a monkey sitting on your head and sticking its surprisingly human little fingers into your ear.  But now I know it can be done, and I’m a better person for it.


My turn!  Beret here and, having just read what John wrote, gratified that I got credit for our return to Bolivia.  We had a brief chat about going to Italy instead, but that felt pretty expensive and touristic, if that’s a word, and I like to go where life is a little more raw.  That’s one of the exciting things about the jungle – you realize that it could pick your bones clean.  But since we’re taking the path of greater creature comforts, we haven’t had such close encounters, though I did manage to get my thumb bitten by a pick-pocket of a Capuchin monkey this morning and our first night here John found the tiniest, most darling little baby of a scorpion lost in the oceanic dimensions of our bedcovers.

It’s very beautiful here, with a river that can sweep away whole towns during its flood stage of December through February.  I saw some men with shovels and wide, shallow wooden bowls and I thought… hmm, they look like gold miners (only the pan was the wrong material).  And that’s what they were.  We’re at a refuge for Amazonian animals rescued from various bad fates, and there’s a cacophany of irridescent, large wild birds and various species of monkeys.  Something here, I haven’t figured out what, has a cry that sounds almost human.  The monkeys are my favorite, especially the spider monkeys, which are remarkably elegant whether walking, climbing, or flying from tree to tree.  They climbed in our laps yesterday morning because it was cold, proceeded to wrap themselves into balls, and close their eyes in bliss as having a warm lap and chest to lean into plus a little bit of grooming to boot.  (Not being a genius with monkeys, I just treated them like cats.)  The smaller monkeys will leap from anything to anything, and one decided, while we were filming an interview with the reserve’s co-founder, that the top of John’s head was desperately in need of some nit-picking.  He (or she) ate peanuts all the while, so pretty soon there was quite an ecosystem on John’s head.  Our interviewee was saying serious and eloquent things, John was trying not to laugh, and I was trying to keep the monkey from mauling the camera, as it very much wanted to climb all over it.

I will be very sad to leave here tomorrow, but we are off to Coroico, our old home, which is up the mountain about a thousand vertical feet and where we hope to cross paths with our niece, Elena, who helped us film here five years ago.  Back to the birds for a moment (I can’t bear to stop talking about this wonderful place), they are so formidable that the one domestic cat I’ve seen must know it would be in shreds if it so much as cast an eye in their direction.  The birds groom each other, eat, and squabble.  There’s a baby alligator with a pool of its own and a large Andean bear that looks a lot like an adult Colorado black bear (with an extra lustrous coat – he gets fed raw eggs, papaya, and coconut, among other things) except for the distinctive yellowish mask on his face and his long, narrow nose.  We watched him being fed this morning.  It took a while for him to get interested in his food, but he came downhill, knocked his massive papaya off its perch, took one large chunk of husk off of his coconut, and stood up on his hind legs on his side of the fence to inspect us.  We were all of three feet away, but there was an electric fence that was reputedly in a good state of repair.  There are a dozen volunteers here, plus local staff, and the volunteers are young travelers from Europe and other places who heard about this place, or came to it after biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road, were as enchanted as we are, and asked to stay on.  I would too if I were 22.

Speaking of our age, the other evening John said to me, “You know what we are?’  This was after we’d shot a badly played game of pool (where we bent various rules) and the volunteers had come in to occupy the movie-watching and pool-table space for their evening’s leisure.  We could feel that it was their space, at least in a certain way, so after our game we went back to our large cabana.  That’s where John posed the question.  Somehow I could tell this question carried a bit of freight.  I waited, and then he said, “We’re their parents.”  Oh!  Indeed!  Yes, he was definitely right.  No way can we pass for young, hip people.  And John lathered it on some more: “No one wants their parents around when they’re doing their own thing.”  (He probably said something more elegant than “doing their own thing,” but I can’t remember now.)  And suddenly I saw myself through their eyes.  Thanks to John, I can’t go back to my ambiguous, free-floating traveler’s identity that didn’t have a lot of ideas attached to it.  THANKS, JOHN.

But, you know, we are finding ourselves to be the ones in the zoo, and that is wonderful.  This place is animal habitat, and we are just interlopers.  The dining room has a sort of tin roof and chicken wire for walls.  The spider monkeys go “thwack!” loudly onto that roof at any moment.  Various dogs, monkeys, birds and other animals are on the outside looking in at us, very much like we were aquarium animals and they had paid admission to be entertained.

We miss Paige and Marcus, but Paige feels not so far away (we’ll be even closer when we get to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca), though she’s currently a few thousand feet higher.  Marcus feels farther away, but we know where he is and so I can bring him almost close in imagination.  It’s really a shock to be reduced to just the two of us – with almost acres of time to talk, so much time in fact that we run out of things to say.  If we weren’t so focused on our filmmaking during these days, it would be stranger still because we’d be reading and writing and walking and gazing into the middle distance, maybe as we did 20 years ago, when we were finally finishing our schooling.  I remember long, slow mornings of coffee, the Sunday New York Times, and my favorite cat on my lap.  Into the middle of that came a fierce want: baby!  And holding the spider monkey in my arms yesterday reminded me how fine it is to hold a baby (though I confess this one was all hairy black arms and twining tail).

Lest you think I don’t care a whit about the film (and John does), here’s the deal: I am now very glad we didn’t finish the “road film” (as we call it) because it’s going to turn out better and truer to its subject than it would have had we called it done before now.  John gets the credit for this.  I was never going to give up and say “no film, it all goes in the trash” (are you kidding??), but I was at one point ready to say, “It’s good enough,” which it wasn’t.  I have long admired filmmakers who take years to make their films – because the story takes years or building the relationships necessary to document the story takes years – and felt that they were our betters.  After all, look at that staying power.  But now we can say, well, we did that once – we had the patience to wait until the story told us it was sufficiently complete.

When we got here, we reread the six ‘travel letters’ we wrote about and during our summer (well, the Andean winter) in Bolivia five years ago.  It’s a portrait of dawning awareness.  We kept wondering about this and that, and sometimes finding answers.  Now we’re again feeling the pleasure of revelations.  Talking again with the characters in our film after five years has been really interesting, and I keep learning things, such as that the former truck stop village of Yolosa actually has a municipal water supply.   I thought they piped their water out of the river (and who knows what goes on upstream), but in fact they have cleaner mountains water and use the river for washing clothes and bathing.  I almost wrote “and for runoff from their sinks, drains, and toilets,” few in number as they are, but that would be an assumption.  And my assumptions of the past have clearly led me astray.

La Paz is fascinating in the way John expressed.  It’s also amazing to see such a vertical city, houses clinging to steep mountainsides with a narrow valley in between.  I love the old colonial buildings best, but the day we were there and I got progressively sicker, I was thinking that if someone wanted to put me out of my misery (a nail through the skull was what came to mind), that would be okay.  It was magical thinking, the kind that strikes one at high elevation, and my goal wasn’t to die, but to be utterly without suffering.  We are headed back to quite high elevation for the last week of our trip and I think I am doing that based on hope (which feels like faith and almost like prayer) that I can get through to the other side, where my body comes right with the environment and I can enjoy the bliss of Lake Titicaca’s brilliant blue water and the sere, barren, and beautiful landscape of the altiplano.


Greetings from a fabulous balcony at the Hotel Esmeralda in Coroico.  It’s still Beret at the helm.  This is our old haunt, the hotel where we lived (and lived through the glories and low moments of the eternal buffet) for two months in 2006.  We had a double-decker room two doors down from our current room.  The kids’ beds were hobbit-sized, meaning too short for Paige, and there wasn’t even a door between the upstairs and downstairs of our room.  (Parents, time to pause: can you imagine that for two months?)  It’s as beautiful here as ever, and we’ve got our fingers crossed that our niece Elena will somehow roll in before night.  The chaqueo, meaning the burning of fields (as a way to get them ready for new planting), is starting up again, and it drives John crazy.  Over time, it fills the valley with smoke and bothers every living thing.  It’s technically “prohibited”, but that doesn’t mean much around here.   An out of control chaqueo burned for days over Yolosa a couple of years ago, killed the trees that were holding up the mountain, and when the rainy season came, down came the mountain, covering the road and bursting into the house of our film character, Don Timoteo, who is famous for being the first “human stoplight” on the road of death.  He is now out of work, aging, and eating a whole lot of oranges, which are cheap and abundant here.

This morning we bade farewell to the Senda Verde, but not before a baby howler monkey had snuggled in my lap and a traumatized spider monkey had been caressed and stroked in John’s lap.  One of the owners of the reserve is basically the alpha of alpha monkeys, but he was gone somewhere today, and two of the spider monkeys began to fight each other for the alpha position.  Such fights are usually brought to a stop when the staff douse the monkeys with buckets of water, but these two wouldn’t stop and … guess what happened to them?  They literally rolled off the proverbial cliffside.  Even down here, there are cliffs, and below them are rocks and rivers.  The monkey John held had been found shivering on the rocks below, but mainly unhurt, and he needed comfort.

Did you know that guinea hens travel in packs or pods – well, always together – and that their heads (I mean brains) are about a hundred times smaller than their big speckle-feathered bodies?  Well, now you do.  The coatis don’t pay an attention to humans (insects are much more interesting) and the strange ferret-looking creature that evidently has a mean bite is as curious as a smart kindergartner.  As for Coroico, it’s luxuryville, as we were able to go to the bounteous downtown and buy a slice of linzer torte (from Hans the baker, someone we know from years ago) and buy a big box of coca tea so we don’t have to live without it for another minute.  The Senda Verde had none and that was steep deprivation.  It also didn’t serve enough food for some reason (we have theories on that), and so John had three pieces of fried chicken for lunch and was a happy man.

One thing I love about Boulder is that it sometimes feels like a small town.  You run into people you know.  Miraculously, that’s happening here, too, even when we don’t expect it.  We were walking around downtown and I heard the voice of a woman talking on her cell phone.  Dios mio if she wasn’t the very same woman we interviewed in the Yungas Room of the coca market in the capital city of La Paz five years ago, the one who complained about the U.S. government’s desire to eradicate coca.  On what are we going to live? she said then and again now when I stopped to talk to her and told her that we’d interviewed her five years ago.  She was just as forthcoming as before, and looked not a day older.   We had also been trying to mail a letter to Paige in Peru, but the gate of the postal woman’s house was up, which means “I’m not in.”  We had dropped by and then circled back again an hour later, only to be disappointed.  I randomly asked the first woman I saw walking by when she thought the post office might be open and she was the post office!  The post office was her front room, fancied up with doilies on chairs and family portraits on the wall.  I feel like we’re in the land of small miracles.

Ten years ago, I thought it would be fun to write a book about how to take small children into the outback (ours happened to be rural, gold mining Ecuador) and entertain them with virtually nothing but … trash.  (I am not joking.  You can make a lot of cool things out of trash – whole cities, in fact.)  Now I am thinking about my current plan, which is to do this entire trip without washing ANY clothes.  Ladies, I have some tips for you on how to make your supply of underwear last three times as long as it should.  But I fear that if I went into details, it might be slightly disturbing.  So just imagine….  On the pants front, though, I can say that a pair of semi-dark (gray is good) hiking pants can last forever.  Mine have had orange juice and beer spilled on them, I’ve knelt in the dirt a bunch of times, been monkey-slimed, and they look really good.  This is day 7 and I’m wondering if I’ll even need to break out my backup pair.  (-:


John here again.  We’re still at the Esmeralda, and now it’s my turn to sit on the balcony and gaze over the endlessly-shifting configuration of clouds and fog in the valley across and below.  The weather over the last day has turned positively wet, with rain and fog blowing through all evening and most of today.  My niece Elena joined us yesterday (she was with us in 2006 as well) and we have been catching up on old times, talking about graduate school (she’s studying for a PhD in Latin American history), and taking a hike in the nearby mountains.  The hike normally boasts panoramic views, but with the fog we contented ourselves with closer pleasures, such as ferns, butterflies, and — suddenly — a very large rattlesnake curled on the side of the path.  Fortunately we saw him from about five feet away and stopped short before we got in striking distance.   He sat there lazily, sluggish from the cold, eyeing us, deciding whether we were really going to be stupid enough to make him bestir himself.  The answer, of course, was no, he could have his mountainside trail, and we would happily head back the way we came, grateful for the walk and the visitation from the ancient snake-god-from-the-mountain, or so in all his scaly glory he seemed.

Yesterday we had another memorable walk, to the Afro-Bolivian village of Tocaña, where the other of our two films is set.  We walked to the colonial main square of Coroico, found a not-too-aged taxi with a sufficiently-aged driver (there’s a sweet spot in there), and set off down the vertiginous cobblestone road to the valley floor, expecting to climb up an equally steep dirt road on the other side to get to Tocaña, perched on the side of the adjacent hillside.  But when we got to the riverbottom and turned towards the bridge, we hit an unexpected traffic jam.  It turns out the locals in the vicinity of the bridge were having a meeting with some government officials about repairs, and the meeting was expected to last for the next four hours.  I looked across the bridge and saw a cluster of perhaps 50 people standing in the middle of the roadway.  At a certain moment a forest of hands shot up, apparently voting on some matter.   After some consultation with our driver and some people on the fringe, we decided we could cross on foot, carrying our camera gear and daypack, and the taxista would wait for us to return.   As we nudged our way through the crowd (their looks were not terrible friendly toward us trespassers, as you might expect) I was struck again by how, in this world, the road through town is the meeting-hall, the market, and sometimes even the church.  And when the local people need the road for this purpose, traffic on either side patiently waits, as it would for a landslide to be cleared away.

After we humped up four km. of steep switchbacks on the far side, past coca fields and shrines to dead drivers, Tocaña itself came into view above us.  Upon sweaty arrival we learned that the new health center locals had been hoping for had been built in 2007, that the Bolivian constitution had been changed to account for Afro-Bolivians as a distinct ethnic group, and that not much else had changed.  We were happy to discover that the people had received an earlier cut of our film that we had sent to them some time ago, and that they were very pleased with how they were portrayed.  I sat in a small house with a grandmother whose daughter was one of the characters – and who had not yet seen the film — and watched it on a small TV.  Her dark face bloomed at seeing her daughter on screen.  Once townspeople realized we were the people who made the film, their faces radiated friendliness.   I had been nervous about going back, worried that we had created a portrait of the town that would not feel true to the people who were its subject.  But apparently we did OK, and we’re arranging to ship a bunch of copies of a bilingual DVD that they can sell to tourists.

But most moving was the former truckstop town of Yolosa itself.   We had also brought a cut of the “road film” to show people, a half-hour version that I had recently shown to a Rotary group in Boulder.  The film ends on a funereal note, with the town’s young people performing a traditional dance in costume in front of a shrine during their annual saint’s-day festival.  As we predicted back then, 2006 was the last time they danced that dance.  Once the new road opened in early 2007, Yolosa died back to a remnant of its former self.  Out of 80 original families, only 14 are still there.  Adding to the woes, a landslide hit the north side of the town last year and destroyed the shrine they had so beautifully decorated in our 2006 footage.  So when we showed the cut to a small group under the awning of an abandoned kiosk, people’s reactions were mixed — they laughed and smiled to see themselves on screen, but by the end they seemed subdued and sad to see the portrait of what they were, compared to what they are now.

And yet, there are signs of renewal.  The valley environment has recovered so wonderfully with the lack of smoke, dust, noise, and trash — now that the old road no longer carries the heavy truck and bus traffic — that Yolosa is now a beautiful, tranquil place.  The river flows picturesquely through the center of town.  Native birds and animals have returned.  The international agency that financed the new road’s construction is FINALLY about to release the funds for building a new tourist infrastructure, complete with a hotel, new, shops for receiving the mountain-bikers, houses, soccer-fields, and a wider channel for the river so that these new improvements might actually survive the rainy season for a year or two.  Along with these changes, there is a new awareness among the people about their environment that was almost completely absent when we were here before.  Now that they have re-oriented their efforts to earning money from tourists, they have begun to market their town as “eco-friendly,” complete with recycling bins and freshly-painted slogans.  Greenwashing?  Sure, to some extent.  But it’s partly genuine as well.  Perhaps the biggest change has to do with the landslide that hit the north side of town.  It was caused by the fact that the townspeople had set a fire to a nearby hillside the year before to prepare it for planting, and the fire had gotten out of control and burned the trees on the steep slope right above town.  The lack of trees made the slope susceptible to erosion, so the next year, it all came crashing down on their heads.  Thankfully, no one was killed.  But a lot of townspeople are now opposed to the traditional burning practice, which, by the way, the national government has now made illegal.   In 2006, when I would complain about the smoke and destruction, locals would just shrug.  Now they are actively trying to find new ways to prepare their fields.

The Senda Verde animal refuge is part of the change too.  The owners are Bolivians from La Paz, so they might as well be foreigners as far as the locals are concerned, but they employ local people to staff the place, and the animals’ effect on them is as profound as it is on the foreigners.  They also invite local school groups in to tour the grounds, teaching the kids a new way of thinking about the planet and their place on it.  Yolosans are a little nervous about having so many “wild animals” so close by, but they are realizing that this is their future, and the initial distrust they felt for the project appears to be waning.

The tourist trade is ramping up in other ways as well.  The leading bike company has installed a three-legged zipline over the town, employing more local youths in a job that requires them to learn English and maintain the safety equipment.   The high-pitched whine of the thing probably drives them bats as tourists whizz over the town, but it gives the locals another way to keep the gringo dollars in town for a few brief moments before they head off to test their bravery on another “dangerous adventure.”

Our two main characters from Yolosa, Mary and Julia, are both women in their fifties.  Mary is outspoken and judgmental, with short red hair and a businesswoman’s directness, whereas Julia is quiet and traditional in her long black braids.  But they are both survivors.   As Mary showed me the architectural drawings for the new Yolosa, I asked her what her own new place is going to look like.  “This isn’t for me,” she said.  “This is for the kids.  I’ll be dead in five years.  I’m old already.”  When we protested that this couldn’t be true, she told us of her diabetes, of her hope that she would live to sixty but her expectation that she wouldn’t get much father than that.  Julia, on the other hand, has living parents in her eighties and appears ready to live at least that long.  Other than the fancy gold dental work she had done, she hasn’t aged at all.  Probably all that coca-chewing keeps her young.  Anyway, we promised them both we would be back before another five years pass.   And when I return, I fully expect to see them both thriving.

Well, I’ll give this back to Beret.  If you’re still reading this tome, you have as much stamina and patience as the Yolosans!  Thanks for listening.


Beret here.  Yes, we’ve been ruminating for days on the fact that most people will not want to read anything this long.  Maybe a good machete job is the ticket.  Speaking of machetes, young boys carry them, working alongside their fathers.  We miss our monkeys, and have had to make due with less glamorous fauna – wolf spiders, a rat on our balcony, birds shrieking in packs or circling silently, a cat in an overly small sweater, and some sweet old dogs.  As for Mary, our Yolosa shopkeeper interviewee and friend, I found it very poignant that at 52, she’s thinking of her death.  We are her age-mates and we figure on 30 more years at least.  Life is hard on Bolivians and their lifespans are significantly shorter than ours although I could get monkey bite fever any minute and John learned from our Lonely Planet Guidebook, which we have had for years but clearly didn’t read, that the chuspis (sand-flies) that plague everyone here can carry leishmaniasis, which can infect internal organs and kill you.  Wahoo!  If the locals are worried, then I cock an ear.  Otherwise, why worry, eh?

I see that John didn’t mention that he just HAD to do the zip line.  And he just HAD to do it with our best video camera in his flying hand.  It was all fine, but only because the zipline staff sent a handler with him on the wire who could do the braking so John didn’t drop the camera or smash into the bumper for runaway tourists at the end of each leg.

It is COLD here.  There being no such thing as heat in Bolivia unless you live in La Paz and are upper class enough to have a space heater, alpaca comes in handy.  I’ve been sleeping in pajamas and socks and wool sweaters and my favorite alpaca hat, all this in addition to blankets.  I also, as Marcus will tell you, have a reputation for being a wimp.

Tomorrow we go back to La Paz, and the next day on to Isla del Sol.  We’ve had a great time listening to Elena share her knowledge about Latin American history.  I’m reminded of our student days, when our heads were full of what we were learning.  Now my thinking is more … dispersed.  Here, I grow prone to a certain empty-headed meditative state.  I would hazard a guess that Bolivians live much more in the present than Americans.  That suits me right now.  Here’s what I like so much about Bolivians: they’re hard workers, honest, and (most of all) have a very solid sense of pride and identity.  They believe their country is full of wealth – mineral wealth and fertility and beautiful ecosystems – and so they don’t say they are poor.  They will say that their governments (and the Spanish before them) have robbed the people.

As for small dishonesties, our taxista of yesterday was hoping to be hired to take us back to La Paz tomorrow, but his Toyota is too old and rickety for that.  John asked how old it was, and after a slight pause for cogitation, Marcelo answered, “Five years.”  John’s estimate was 15, given the car’s state of technology.  Can you blame Marcelo?  And his price to La Paz was less than half of what we paid to get here, so….

It’s time for bed, so I’ll sign off for now.  All of you in warm places, please radiate a little in our direction.  Even my feet are cold within my thermal socks.


Beret again.  Greetings from gorgeous Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca.  To set the scene, it’s now nighttime, there’s no place to plug in any electrical object in our hostel, and what light there is is golden, from a single bulb overhead that dims at random.  This island is very beautiful and unpopulated.  It juts straight up from the very blue lake and across the water we can see the magnificent 20,000 ft. peaks of the Cordillera Real.  We are in a village called Yumani, populated by happy kids, hardworking adults, burros, amorous dogs, llamas, a few pigs, and a lot of sheep and lambs.  The burros do their loud burro call every so often and it seems to be their way of talking across distances or calling out their hunger.  Sound carries far because there’s so little vegetation, though there are eucalyptus trees and beautiful flowers.  We’re in the tropics, after all!  The steep hills are terraced, so people can grow potatoes and a plant I don’t know to feed the sheep.  The rooftops are tin (which glints in the sun), thatch and reed, and tile.  The buildings seem to be adobe.  The days are somewhat warm, but the nights are around freezing, and I have been sleeping for days in alpaca socks, pajamas, a wool sweater and an alpaca hat.  My biggest packing regret is not having brought long underwear on this trip.  So, here I am in bed, John dozing off beside me (he’s sick but starting to recover), in a shirt, two sweaters, and a Gore-Tex shell, with blankets atop.  And Bolivians are very good at blankets because they have to be.  Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have ever been.  We took a walk (which felt like a hike, since every step up at 13,000 ft. is a big deal) up a hill and then sat outdoors and watched the day slowly wane.  We ordered a pizza, having skipped lunch and been given a skimpy breakfast at our cheapest hotel yet (under $12), and waited for the dough to rise and the pizza to be made.  Long years ago, we’d make jokes in Mexico while waiting for food.  They went like this: now they’re catching the chicken, now they’re plucking the chicken, and so on.  In those days (and maybe still?) a bowl of chicken soup might easily have a pair of chicken feet (I’m talking yellow talons) sticking out of it.

Last night we were in Copacabana, the embarkation point for boats to this island.  We got on a boat with a bunch of young travelers (mainly Latin American, with some European thrown in), but the lake was rough and the boat was overcrowded, so they said they’d take just the ones who were going “one-way”, meaning staying on the island.  They got a new, smaller, nicer boat, but communication was so poor that everybody mobbed onto the boat.  I got on after the seats were all taken, and John was stuck on the dock.  That wouldn’t do, so I got off and we overnighted in Copacabana.  I loved the rocking motion of the boat out here, but a bunch of people seemed to be succumbing to seasickness.  The boats seats were two benches, one along each side of the cabin, and on those we perched.  Some people and two yappy dogs were on the deck.  Even getting to Copacabana required riding a sort of tiny boat (which was rocky enough that they gave us life jackets) and watching our big bus come across a stretch of water on something resembling Huck Finn’s raft.  John’s comment: “There are definitely some vehicles on the lake bottom.”

Taking in the stunning beauty of this place, John said, “Let’s stay here for a month.”  It is considered the birthplace of the sun in Incan cosmology, and it feels sacred.  It would be amazing to be a writer or a painter and live here for a while.   If only.  But we are very lucky to be here at all.  I was listening to a song: “We’ve traveled so far to be here.”  Yes, because we travel our entire lives in a way, don’t you think?  John and I visited Lake Titicaca 23 years ago.  That was when I fell in love with Bolivia.  I’m not sure how much longer this battery will last (it’s John’s old laptop), so I’ll sign off for now.  Thank you for sharing our journey with us.  Wish you were here, with all of your winter clothes on!  Right now I feel toasty warm (at last) and, as I do every day here, so happy to be here.


John here again.  If you’re still reading this shaggy dog – er, shaggy llama – story, I guess apologies for its length are superfluous.  It’s late morning of our second day on Isla del Sol, which for the moment is Isla de la Lluvia – Island of Rain.  The weather throughout Bolivia has been unusually cold and wet during this entire trip, and so I’m neither surprised nor unhappy about today’s weather – though it may make for a rough ride back on the ferry this afternoon!

We are lodged in a small set of rooms built in the past few years by an enterprising señora named Iola who wanted to divert some of the tide of tourist dollars that has flooded up this hillside lately.  This morning we had an interesting chat, which tempered our rosy projections about the pastoral community of this island.  Here’s what she told us:

In the old days, when Iola was a girl, there was little to do in the evenings except gather with your family and relations and tell stories, communicating with those closest to you what was really in your heart.  There were visitors, but they were few, and given the lack of infrastructure, they tended to be hardy and curious.  The islanders had of course always been poor; in fact, Iola’s grandparents were slaves of the local plantation just down the hill from our hotel.  But since 1952, slavery has been abolished, and the people were tired of their poverty compared with what they knew of the outside world.  In particular, they wanted electricity for their island.  It was a twelve-year campaign of petitioning authorities for the extension of high-voltage cables strung from towers straddling the strait between the island and the nearest peninsula.

They finally got their wish in 2000, just as the Millenium broke over the rest of the world.  The effect was immediate.  As soon as the households got electricity, they started spending their evenings watching TV.  Their kids learned more about the outside world than they ever had before.  They stopped spending the evenings talking with their elders, they stopped wanting to wear traditional clothes, and they started wanting things that they had never wanted before.   What’s more, with electricity came many more tourists, as the island was now able to offer them the accommodations and foods they were used to.  The old Hacienda was refurbished as a fancy tour destination.   The community became divided between those who wanted to develop tourist facilities as a group, versus those who wanted to build and earn for themselves.  A few people started making a lot of money, and others not at all.  Some of the new jobs were most suitable for children, such as the young boy who lugged our duffel bag up the steep slope from the wharf to our lodgings.  Iola told me that the kids who make money this way lord their wealth over their classmates, and kids who lack this money complain to their parents.  And what authority does a father have over a 12-year-old son who makes more than he?


Beret asked Iola whether, on balance, the electricity has been a good thing.  She said yes, but not without its drawbacks.  And I am thinking the year 2000 was a particularly rough moment in world history to jump from the grassy banks of subsistence agriculture into the deep and swift currents of the service economy, tending to the whims of 20-something backpackers, with their university degrees and gore-tex.  We stopped for coca tea at one particularly breathtaking vista overlooking the lake, and in the window of the adjacent pension sat a young gringa fresh from the shower, wrapped only in a towel, sunning herself in full view of whomever passed by.   I wondered what conclusions a local boy – or girl – seeing her might draw.

Iola tells us that the community has instituted a 20% tax on all tourism receipts, to be shared among all residents, as a way of evening things out, and she thinks this is a good thing.  I wonder whether the island’s traditional, communitarian values might be more adaptive in the 21st Century than the individualist, market-driven phase into which they appeared to be plunging.  But for communities, like individuals, it is often hard to skip steps on the staircase of development.

Still, Isla del Sol bit into my heart, leaving an itch more profound than a chuspi bite, and as the ferry took us off into the sunny lake (I am finishing this entry a day after I began it, and the sun returned by lunchtime) I vowed to return, some year, for perhaps a month.  Anyone want to come?

— Con mucho cariño, 

John & Beret

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