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.