“Surviving the Death Road” won Best Documentary at the Third World Indie Film Festival in San Francisco, CA.
“The historic value of the film was first-rate. And Penny was refreshing and enlightening in her candor. The racing highlight was the Belmont Stakes, with Penny superimposed against the race footage. This was excellent film-making, and it is obvious that John Tweedy is gifted at his craft. I highly recommend this film . . . as real-life and compelling a drama as one can squeeze into one hour.”
– Steve Haskin, The Blood Horse
Happy Winter Solstice from Landlocked Films!
Our family trip to see the lovely whales of the Laguna San Ignacio . . .
Dr. Beret E. Strong and John Tweedy’s short documentary offers an overview of the social and economic challenges that continue to plague Bolivia’s black population. The Afro-Bolivians, as they’re known, are descendants of the African slaves brought to the Andes by the Spanish conquistadors. Bolivia did not abolish the last vestiges of slavery until 1952, and the Afro-Bolivians continue to face racism and poverty. Sadly, the population lacks political muscle—in one of the film’s most shocking moments, a black woman is shooed away from a polling station during a local election—and the national census does not even acknowledge the existence of this demographic group. Coca farming has been one of the few areas where the people can thrive, but it’s been threatened by American pressure due to the plant’s use in producing cocaine. Many Afro-Bolivians are banking on higher education—especially nursing—to create a new wave of employment opportunities. Saya also holds out hope that unique Afro-Bolivian cultural expressions, particularly the titular dance that originated in Africa, can break down racial barriers. In one of its most buoyant moments, an all-black dance group entertains the multicultural participants at a regional festival, resulting in a happy mix of folks of different heritages literally dancing in the streets. Recommended (3 stars).
–Video :Librarian Aud: C, P. (P. Hall)
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.
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.
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!
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,