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.