They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Bolivia 01: the Andes through my eyes

Bolivia 01: the Andes through my eyes

By Edgardo Civallero

I'm currently travelling to Bolivia. During my trip I would like to collect my feelings about this country, a country which is changing right now. A country which deserves to be better known.

Days 1-2. The Andes through my eyes

A 30-hours bus trip lies ahead: one that will carry me to the "roof" of my continent, in the city of La Paz, under the shadow of the arrogant Illimani. The distance between me and my destiny is not only a physical one: it is mainly a mental distance. For many of my countrymen, Bolivia –and even Argentinean northwestern provinces– is another world, a universe that works and is governed according to different rules and values; a universe that resembles an exotic or even an incomprehensible thing. This new world does not cause a lot of interest or curiosity, at least in Argentina. However, in my personal case, I am fulfilling a dream kept for years inside me, an old desire that becomes reality again (this is not my first travel).

The first day, the route takes me through the northern area of Cordoba province (where I live); through the desolated salars of the province of Santiago del Estero; through the gorgeous province of Tucumán; and through the yungas (warm valleys with rain forests) of Salta. After crossing some valleys in the last province, I stop in the city of Jujuy, which already shows a bit the Andean atmosphere that I am about to discover all around me northwards: other shapes, other colors, other smells, other attitudes and customs...

From Jujuy I go north, to the Bolivian border, crossing one of the most fascinating landscapes of this part of the country: the famous Quebrada (gorge) of Humahuaca, declared UNESCO's Humankind's Heritage. Every word that has been said about this place is nothing compared with what I feel when those landscapes are there, in front of my eyes... All the lyrics of bailecitos and carnavalitos (traditional Andean rhythms) come to my mind together, paying tribute to these "painted" hills, and the huge cacti, and the festivals and traditions of the communities living there. The rocks look violently folded in arches kilometers long, and a rainbow seems to have been caught within them. The impression is even harder when I cross Jujuy's highlands (called puna in Quechua language). Here, the colors are inverted: bluish hills are outlined on gray skies full of dark storm-clouds; brown plains are carpeted by ochre ichu grass and tolas and crossed by wide streams that only carry drought sands of greenish tonalities... The vicuñas graze in scattered flocks, under the vigilant glance of some solitary mallkus (condors).

It is a real show for all the senses, a travel for the imagination; its visit deserves to be recommended. But, behind all these beautiful landscapes, there is an entire people who needs help. The social reality –as glimpsed from a bus' window– reveals lacks and lots of problems; I know these old problems first hand because I have faced them in other Argentinean provinces. Perhaps the most painful one –always, everywhere– is seeing children working hard. I know that I am in a world that is different from my own one, to the one I know. I know that rules here are different, that customs are different... but my head does not stop thinking about education and a more promissory future for all those communities. Something in which libraries have a role to play.

I cross the Bolivian border through the city of Villazón, and I buy there a big load of coca leaves –the first of my trip– to begin fighting the suruqchi (altitude sickness) that starts affecting me: I can hardly breathe, and my heart –as well as my brains– want to jump out of my body... The trip to La Paz in one of the most crazy journeys of my life: 13 hours of travel with scales and transfers everywhere, and tons of new things that astonish me, and that would probably displease other people. Luckily, I learnt –a long time ago– to enjoy and to laugh with every "strange" detail that appears in my life, so I share my food and my laughter with the other travelers, while we cross the moon-like rocks of Tupiza, the lovely city of Potosí –home of miners and "tios", the devils of the mines–, deserts of reddish sands and streams, snow-covered mountain ranges, and villages with all the houses built with sun-dried bricks, hanging over amazing precipices, over little rivers... It's worthy of a film, really. But my main delight is the people, a different people, smiling all the time, never forgetting the word "friend", offering help all the time and demonstrating an incredible and rooted sense of communitarism and solidarity, something that Argentineans –and so many peoples abroad– would need to acquire in industrial amounts.

For many foreigner visitors, Andean countries are just a curiosity, a set of touristic places that would not give much more than a picture. Few people really stop to chat with real Bolivians, interested in their lives and their customs; to learn about their problems and their hopes. Few people venture to eat all their meals, to drink all their drinks, to cross all the corners of their cities, to sleep in all their places and to share all their things. I have done it and I've realized that the mental image that is spread about Bolivia in my country –and in many others– is totally inadequate. I suppose that it is the product of closed minds that do not understand other worlds, different from the technified and consumerist Euro-American model. Here, in the middle of the Andean highlands and mountains, the hearts still take their own time to beat, to feel and to remember. And I want mine –totally crazy because of suruqchi– to learn to do the same thing.

The city of La Paz –where I finally arrive– receives me in a Bus Station where posters are written up in three languages: Spanish, Quechua and Aymara. I remember that I am in an openly multicultural and plurilingual country, a country that does not wish to hide its several indigenous roots and their racially mixed stems and fruits. The city of La Paz vitally beats in each corner, in each market, in each street. The indigenous world is intimately combined with the western world, giving birth to an incredible, exciting mixture distilling tradition and joy-to-live from its four corners.

Settled in the valley of the Choqueyapu river, La Paz virtually "climbs" the vertical walls of the valley and it grows and grows through the upper highland, forming two clear urban sections, "Lower" La Paz ("El Bajo", old, traditional city) and "Higher" La Paz ("El Alto", formerly a favela neighborhood that became a new, huge city). This way, the classical Andean dichotomy is perpetuated (high and low, masculine and feminine, right and left). The street-sellers make of the city their kingdom: it's incredible to see their capacity for selling any imaginable thing in the street, from a natural coconut juice to fried lamb (fried right there, in front of your eyes), or DVDs with films that still have not been projected in cinemas. Their capacity for bargaining is also admirable, and it would exhaust the nerves of many foreigners accustomed to fixed prices. But this is one more aspect of Bolivian soul: a dynamic fire, always in movement, noisy in the cries of the bus drivers, smiling in the faces of the children and always interested in the others, always sensitive and always friendly.

The picture of the proud Aymara women –who never, never stop wearing their traditional clothes– and the one of the thousands lustrabotas (shoe-cleaners) –hiding their faces under a pasamontañas to protect their identities from the fingers of shame– give me the "good night"... or is it a "good afternoon"?