April 11, 2014
On Sunday, March 30 we go with Biblioworks to Tomoroco, a small town about three hours away, to build a playground. There are fifteen of us: three Biblioworks staffers and twelve volunteers—three from Bolivia (including Carlos), four from the US (including Jacky, Thalia, and me), one from Germany, one from France (but who now lives here), and two from Argentina. The road is paved through Tarabuco, but at some point before it gets to Morada K’asa it turns cobblestoned; after Presto, it’s just dirt. Tomoroco is quite small, but big enough to have a central plaza (unlike Candelaria) and a large school, in which is the future playground. We’re a little distressed to see that two large molles (peppertrees) in that space have been sawn down—Zannah’s original plan for the playground was to have them provide shade. But we are told that this was necessary because the roots were undermining the nearby buildings.
Maritza, who runs Biblioworks, introduces us to fifteen high school senior boys, who are to help us, and splits us into teams to build each project. Thalia, Jacky, Carlos, and I are all on different teams. My team’s job is to build a climbing tree out of three truck tires and four seven- or eight-foot poles. It’s a lot harder than it looks. First we have to wash the truck tires and cut out the middle part on one side, which is done with a knife while the tire is wetted (it’s much easier to cut a tire when wet than when dry). Then we sand the poles. We drill holes in the tires and in the poles and fasten them together, which is not easy at all: the bolts to fasten them are usually a bit too narrow to accommodate the nuts inside the tire and go all the way through the poles, which means narrowing the poles with an ax. We use two bolts to join each tire to each pole, for a total of twenty-four bolts, and twenty-four holes to be drilled all the way through each pole, and twenty-four holes to be drilled through the tires too. Sometimes the latter are too big and the nut goes right through, so we cut pieces of tire to put behind the nuts. After we’ve joined the first pole to all three tires, we then have to put the six bolts through the next pole and lift the tires on top of it to maneuver the bolts into the holes and attach the nuts. The whole thing is awkward and time-consuming—it takes all day the first day and part of the second for our four-man team to assemble the tree, roll it onto the playground, dig holes for it, and set it into cement. Meanwhile, the other teams are building, out of tires and wood, various animals for the kids to climb on, an alphabet game, a tunnel, a car, and a little house. And a sixty-something-year-old man is chopping tree trunks, laying down rocks for a path, digging, and doing other intensely physical work with more energy and efficiency than anyone else there.
The seniors we work with amaze me. They’re all good-natured, never complaining; at mealtimes they take off their hats and sit in silence and eat with good manners; they joke around a bit but mostly work hard, contributing ideas to getting things done. I often find myself just watching them, since it’s hard for four of us to work on these things at once, and since they have so much more energy and strength than I have. If I had to work with senior boys in the States, they would complain, mouth off, take lots of breaks, tell dirty jokes, and even jump ship on occasion.
A few high school girls prepare our meals, which are very good—traditional Bolivian food, with soups and plenty of starches. We all sleep in one school room on thin, shabby mattresses on the floor, but nobody complains. Monday morning, Carlos and Mattias (the German) get up at 4:15 to go back to Sucre. Then, before we start work, Jacky and I explore the river next to the town and the opposite bank, which goes up a small hill and is quite wild.
The second day of work is less organized around teams; everyone pitches in to complete the various projects. After the tree has been set up, I mostly work around and in the small house, building walls out of (and sawing) logs and removing debris. Jacky and Thalia have everyone in stitches at the end of the day ribbing each other (in Spanish). Getting a ticket for the early-morning bus home isn’t easy; Caroline, the American volunteer coordinator, and I go to the bus office (unmarked), about four blocks from the school, but nobody’s there; we go back a second time with the son of the bus driver, who is one of the seniors, and he registers us; and a third time to actually purchase the tickets. We then get up at 4:15 Tuesday morning to meet the bus there. So many people get on that everyone is absolutely squished and then we all have to get off so that the bus can climb the hill that leads out of town; enough people disembark in Presto, though, so that we’re comfortable. Halfway back the bus stops for twenty minutes at the top of a hill to add brake fluid; we get out and wander around. It’s unutterably beautiful up there, with views in every direction, tiny ponds, a small wheat field, a path along a ridge, with the hills green and curved like the limbs of a sleeper.
Last Friday, a week ago, we attend a screening, on video, of an important 1969 Bolivian film called Blood of the Condor. A Marxist, anti-imperialist, and pro-indigenous movie, it caused quite a stir when it was released; in one part of the movie, Peace Corps members are caught sterilizing indigenous women. The movie is pure propaganda, with clear good people (indigenous) and bad (rich Bolivians and Americans), and because people believed it, the Corps was expelled in 1971 (it left Bolivia a second time in 2008). A discussion follows the movie, but nobody points out that the Peace Corps did not sterilize anyone and that instead it was promoting contraception. A few older audience members indulge in strong anti-American rhetoric, accusing America of continuing to try to keep the Bolivian population small. What bothers me most is that the large number of students there are going to believe that the Peace Corps actually did do those things.
Early Saturday morning Jacky, Philly, and I take a bus with a Turkish tourist and a Bolivian guide to an Inca trail about 90 minutes from Sucre. We hike downhill for two-and-a-half hours, then walk along a road towards Maragua. The scenery on the Inca trail is rocky and magnificent; we see cactuses called gardenias that will burst into flames when it gets too hot. But the walk that follows is even better, with Shangri-La-like valleys, blue-and-brown striped cliffs, and a river that runs through it. We eat lunch under eucalyptus trees with some wandering cattle, then cross the river and climb steeply to the top of a mountain. From there we follow a ridge overlooking a dramatic waterfall. At one point the trail narrows to about six inches around a curve with a steep drop on one side; the walls and trail are made entirely of purple pebbles. It’s the scariest moment of the trek. We arrive at Maragua at dusk. To the east, opposite the sunset, distinct white rays emanate from the horizon.
Maragua is in a “crater,” though it’s more like a giant depression; all around it are hills with arched rock formations, as if Maragua were the center of an enormous flower. The town itself is tiny—only about eighty or ninety families live there—and gullies run all through it, so that the houses are quite far apart. To get there we walk through corn and wheat fields and say hello to a family plowing with two oxen. Joaquin, our guide, offers coca leaves to everyone he meets, which is the common, friendly thing to do here. The community runs a beautiful set of cabañas, where we spend the night. Our legs and shoulders are terribly sore from hiking eight hours and carrying all our clothes and food. Unfortunately, Joaquin can’t find the key to the cabin at first, and then the propane tank for cooking is empty and he has to hunt down another one; in the end, all we have for dinner is some soup from a package.
The next morning we hike up out of the crater, a very difficult slog that takes about two hours. We continue going uphill over more fairy-tale countryside, green and rocky, with houses that look like they were built by Incas, with the walls made of unmortared rocks and the roofs of grass. Eventually we reach a huge rock slope on which are dozens of dinosaur footprints—petrified mud that looks like it just dried up yesterday. It is at this point that I finally completely run out of energy—my breathing is so labored that I feel like I can’t take another step. But I do, of course, and well up the hill from the footprints we finally relax and have a large lunch. I eat enough to get all my energy back, and then some.
The people in the area are Jalq’a, not Tarabuqueño, and their dress is somewhat different: their helmet-like hats are white rather than black, with colored borders; their white pants are longer and embroidered at the bottom. Little girls stop us and try to sell us homemade woolen, woven bracelets and spiral fossils that they’ve found.
Most of the time Jacky and Joaquin are in front, chatting easily in Spanish, while I bring up the rear (Philly a little ahead of me). I don’t mind. We hike the rest of the afternoon and arrive in Potolo at nightfall—another eight hours of hiking behind us. Three times larger than Maragua, Potolo is in a deep valley, with a plaza, a church, and a museum. The cabañas here are as nice as those in Maragua, and we all sleep soundly again.
In the morning we take a three-hour bus ride back to Sucre. The road at first follows a canyon as impressive as any I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some amazing canyons (especially in Utah). I get the impression that Bolivia has as many and as various natural wonders as any other country, if not more; we are continually stunned.