Bolivia- June 1998
Out on Our Own
All those interested in taking extra day-trips or excursions had to sign up at the front desk. So a big meeting had convened here while Bob and Wendy tried to rally support for their departure tickets. They had also signed up for the day trip to the Tiauanaku Ruins, the 4000 year old Aymara sun temple. Bob was very upset that Vic and I had not chosen to go, too. "Aww come-on" he said, "when else will you ever get the chance?" "Next year" I said, since we planned to return each summer (or should I say winter). "No, thanks. We're going to take the truck out and try to get some more pictures." we tell him. "Yeah, like you didn't shoot enough on our first trip". But we were determined. So, thursday, after breakfast, Vic and I grabbed the truck key from Fred and exited. The gates closed behind us and we were now on our own.... We headed southeast toward LaPaz. Almost immediately, we were stopped, clicking. Kids were literally hanging from the trees waiting to be photographed. I thought that I was reviewing a lot of the same business we'd seen the days before and had almost become tired of seeing all the BROWN everywhere. Vic was admittedly frustrated, also since he had never been down here with cloudy skies. "There's no light!" he complained as we passed another cryptic sign about the road conditions. This one seemed to have an airborne car with two legless people on it. Still not sure if the signs were just losing pieces to the stickers, or what, we drove with a little caution. This morning, there was a lot more snow. It had reached down from the mountains behind us to the foothills nearby and the squared terraces were hilighted by the snowy contrast. Charred bushes and clumps of grass were everywhere. The fires the night before were everywhere. Vic sneaked out to try and photograph the fireworks next door, but the folks were a little too private for even his enormous time-zone away lens. One entire hillside did go up in flames and we watched it smolder and flame from across the lake during dinner. So today I started looking at the cows suspect. We passed a cow that seemed to be an unnatural shade of deep black just on his left side, with brown on the right. This was such a defined line between his coloring that I wondered if he couldn't have perhaps been too close to one of these flame-ups. We had pulled over perhaps ten times trying to shoot a good picture of the snow on the foothills without any luck. The trouble had to do with the vast areas of nothingness between us and the hills with not so much as a tree to breakup the view.
I spotted a church steeple in a town off the side of the road, so we detoured looking for it. "Whoa!" hollers Vic turning a corner face on into a commercial truck filling the alley sized road space. It wouldn't have seemed so huge, I think if the baggage tied to the top wasn't taller than the buildings around. Little one-story houses and markets (none of which had any windows) that all had their owners sitting in the doorways with unusual little stretches of three foot high wooden fence blocking the entry. I believe that Martha Stewart would approve, however, since a lot of lovely springtime colors were used in their paint. Suddenly, Vic hits the breaks. "Wait." he says. I watch as he points to a mother and daughter crossing the road pushing a wheelbarrow full of laundry. He waited until they passed and disappeared between two crumbling walls. "Now." he announces, pulling slowly forward. Sure enough, we were able to watch the two wander and wind their way toward the water unnoticed while they toted their wash. - We never found the church to accompany this steeple and gladly returned to the main paved road to escape the maniacal truck drivers.
All the little mud-brick houses had sod rooves that were all covered with snow from the night before. So it was easy to tell which were occupied by the steam rising off each roof from whatever cooking was happening inside melting the snow. Another strange traffic sign warned us that some danger ahead was going to sever our vehicle in half. Vic pointed out a hillside with huge strait grooves cut from it. We had been told that this was their version of mining the rock for building, but in the past, sites like this were good places to look for fossils. A blur of mountainside whizzed past almost too quick for me to notice one of my favorite memories. On the silhouette of the jagged black rock of the nearby mountain, I saw a mother and her daughter. They sat front to back also in silhouette with mother braiding her daughter's long hair there on the crags of the mountainside.
"Look it's the little cemetery!" Three years, Vic had passed the same tiny, quaint and colorful cemetery wishing he could stop the bus, and today we get there and the sky was so cloudy, you could hardly make out the brilliant crayon box colors everything had been painted. "Sheep!?!" I noticed after standing here for well over five minutes examining the garb draped on the above ground caskets. (perhaps too rocky to dig graves). The yard was completely fenced in iron bars, but perhaps 30 sheep wandered through it nibbling on the floras left in the headstones. This must be the grounds maintenance plan for the cemetery, we decided.
We passed a small University that resembled one of those health clinics on a Unicef donation drive. "D'you think that's where those boys go to school?" I asked Vic, referring to a group of boys that visited the star party on Sunday night at our hotel. "Those guys weren't in school, Sweetie." He answered rolling his eyes. "I don't know. They sure sounded like college boys." Four of them came to our telescope that night, and hearing some small amount of Spanish come from my mouth, asked if I spoke. I had answered with my normal response of "I understand better than I can speak." But one of the crackups answered that he spoke more than he could understand. These kids clearly were just like the teenagers in the U.S. Since I laughed at his joke, they began to drill me some more. They claimed to know some English and tried to impress me with some numbers. I asked where they learned English. With each word, they crowded closer and closer to me, forsaking the telescope altogether. Their ages magically changed in context to whatever they were boasting at the moment, and they claimed to be going to school at a University. Soon, one asked if I had a spouse. "No" I answered. "Do you want a spouse?" I thought this was a good time to point out that the nice, big tall man accompanying me was "mi novio" - or boyfriend. Several nods and whispers gave them cause to pause quietly while I explained what I'd just said to Vic. But sure enough, one responded with a question about if I had been "presented". I assumed this was the word for engaged and said "No". The faces all lit up again with a change in tone and lots more whispers. The same fellow asked "Why not?" They all look at Vic, still clueless as where the conversation had turned and why they were all staring at him. I patted him on the back and said "Why don't I let you answer this one, Sweets." I never knew how old they really were or what part of their schooling gave them some English, but it was sure fun to be able to speak the language enough joke with the hooligans.
The road toward LaPaz was primarily open, flat country, but this didn't make travel any easier. Several patches of road had never been paved and with all the excess rain, we were tumbling from pothole to pothole while getting splashed by all the huge trucks coming and going. It seemed like the unavailability of excess cars meant that a car's most valuable feature was how many people could be packed into it and how many bundles could be rigged to the top. Our lifestyle would never consider it acceptable to cram so many strangers into a minivan so tightly that they were literally pressed against the glass. All of these folks were traveling hours at a time over hell for roads to sell their goods for pennies. Also, some arrangement was in place that the vans would slow down as they passed people on the road and a member of the cargo would holler out the destination to see if the pedestrian needed to go there, too.
We passed through a narrow neck between buildings where there was only about a half a lane passable for the grooved wet mud, but full sized commercial trucks overloaded and barely balanced crept, teetering through while each direction took their turn. This was beginning to turn into a legitimate town here and small amounts of hills had been added. We were approaching our turn back time when I spotted the wagon. Reluctant on this trip to stop the truck, I tried to aim in time, but I guess I need more practice. We pulled over and Vic couldn't believe the view of the mother and her 3 boys and a wagon. It didn't make much sense to me how much effort she was exerting to get the baby boy into the wagon and tug it unwillingly with a broken wheel, crouching to reach the foot long handle. The sidewalk she was on ended about four feet ahead of her. She didn't reach the obstacle while we were there, and I admit my attention was diverted with the sight of a gorgeous vintage chevy truck on the hill behind me. Ok, so I'm a car lover, but how could this prize that would draw awe at a collectors' meet in the US have made it down here where they can't even order Craftsman tools?
We had now officially exceeded our maximum U-turn time, but I reminded Vic that we would probably take less pictures going back and he felt much better. This was a self-perpetuating situation. Since we didn't shoot much, we went fast. Since we went fast, we couldn't shoot much. Much that is except the shot I thought got away. Scooting through a roadside village on a wet, bumpy road I saw what had to be a mirage. The grouping of family on the front step and in the mud out the front door looked familiar, but the woman in the doorway had her waistlength full black hair unraveled and down brushing it. Never had I ever seen an Aymara out with her hair not in the traditional braids with ornamental dangling pon-pon's tied into it. "Slow down! I shouted", attracting her attention as I scrambled to get the window down and the camera up, focused and framed as we whizzed by. I was turned all the way around in my seat before I had a chance at a shot, but she was now ducking, waving and looking for something to throw. "Damn" I whispered. "There's no way that'll come out." "What was it?" Vic asked. But I figured that the words, "she had her hair down" would do the image no justice. "Let's just go on home." (I found out when I got stateside that the picture did, indeed turn out.)
We passed more cows that were black only on the left and more "Look out! Your car is going to take flight and loose it's trunk" signs. We passed donkeys and sheep, and women with bright bundles over their backs. We passed a cow sitting tied in a backyard to a transmission. We even passed a couple preparing their potatoes in a way I'd only read about once as being pretty uncommon. They had bundles of - presumably freeze-dried - potatoes and were placing them carefully into the running river. The depiction's I had heard explained that they were to be left in the running cold water for a month, leaving the texture of the potato completely different. (like Styrofoam, actually). But this did seem like a rare opportunity for us since the season here in the winter (June) was typically very dry leaving the riverbeds dry. It was only because of El Nin~o that there was this much rain. And then we got to the checkpoint.
Note that only now talking about the way back is there mention of a check- point. Fred and Pat had at least warned us that you were stopped on the way back. They way they explained it was that it cost five Bolivianos to pass, but they forgot to stop going through the first time. So, stopped here, I looked around - did we forget to stop, too? No, the road separated and only those coming from LaPaz had to go through the stop. So we pull up and open the window producing all of our paperwork and passports like the foreigner trying to rent a video with his birth certificate. I pulled a five boliviano bill out for the fee but didn't pass it over to the guards just yet. Vic was at the window and they keep their hand held out after we gave them the passports asking for something else that definitely did NOT sound like money. I leaned over and asked what they needed and the guard holds up a small white slip unlike any paperwork I'd seen in Bolivia yet. "It's a ticket from the last check, I bet" says Vic. So I explain as best I can with my VERY limited vocabulary that we just went a little way and then came back. "We don't have that". I said. So the guy shakes his head and talks to the other man beside him. He has already given our passports back and the two just keep talking while he punches, moves and staples paperwork. Finally, he looks at us like a bunch of idiots, waves forcefully at us and says go! go! "You know they're going to laugh about us for at least 20 minutes after we're gone." says Vic. "Yeah, I know but you know what?" I giggle. "Not half as much as they must have laughed at getting five Bolivianos out of Fred and Pat."
~ ©1998 Jennifer Dudley Winter