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.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Travel diary (06-07 out of 28): 52 hours’ journey on a bus...

Travel diary (06–07 out of 28): 52 hours' journey on a bus

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

We decided to go through hundreds of kilometers from Santiago de Chile to the capital of Peru, Lima, by land, that is, sitting on a bus. Since we did not have too much time (we ought to arrive in time for the next Congress in Peru on Monday, 13th November), we wanted to avoid too many stopping places and checked which bus company did the most direct route. If we were lucky or unlucky with the one we chose, "Ormeño", only time would say... (though we are still waiting for its answer, Sara tends to think that we were not that fortunate with our election). "Ormeño" is a bus company that has got the Guinness Award crossing the longest route: Buenos Aires-Santiago-Lima-Quito-Bogotá-Caracas. With such a presentation, who would dare to doubt them? They told us we would be in Lima in 52 hours and we said: "All right, then".

What they never said to us was how they would do it. In fact, at that moment, we did not care about it either. However, we spent very little time in finding it out, and probably less in noticing that the award was not enough guarantee. They would have deserved the last place in cleanness, in kindness, in service or in mechanics. A lot of adjectives could be said in order to qualify the features (we cannot speak about "qualities" here) of the "Ormeño" service, but we will omit that part because we do not want to make a list of bad words and insults that would make the most impudent one to flush. It would be enough to say that we had not many chances and we did not drive a good bargain.

When we bought the tickets we did not measure the effects of being 52 hours with our bottoms and our backs literally stuck to a seat, moving into a sloping position far away from comfortable, breathing the same air (and other substances, some of them very particular) than other fifty people, using a tiny WC that was never cleaned and where many passengers think that they can throw all of their excretions (imaginable and unimaginable ones, I assure you), bearing films and more films at a volume far from normal, and at a time when everyone should be having rest, eating what we were able to, stopping to stretch our legs (or whatever was left of them) and to find a proper toilette (without success) when the driver decided that it was time to stop.

Anyway, on Friday, the 10th of November we got up with our body still complete and ourselves still fit and happy in Santiago de Chile. The Congress should be finished that day with "national lecturers" participation. Shamefully, we were not able to listen to these presentations (and we also had to cancel our visit to the National Libray, and we could not attend the posters session either, nor to conclude some other matters) because the bus was leaving at noon and was the only means of transport for us to arrive in time to our next librarian appointment, in Peru. We said goodbye to the ones that wanted to say goodbye to us, and set off for the bus station, with many things learnt and many others that we would rather forget. Neither all the organizations are perfect nor all human beings are intelligent or sensible (and we found a few examples of Homo sapiens who were neither Homo, nor sapiens).

"Ormeño" route, took us throughout the central Chilean valley, spreading to the north of Santiago, showing vineyards first of all, later irrigated regions and orchards, and only dry ground a bit further.

Night was coming down little by little and very fast we understood that the journey would be a living hell. We would never recommend it to our friends or foes, acquaintances or not, should they try that route by bus, with the exception of being willing to make a crazy thing (as we did). The night caught us up somewhere to the north of La Serena.

While I was trying to get to sleep without success, I did a sort of personal evaluation of the Public Libraries Congress celebrated in Chile. The organization had been good and kind; the structure of the event had been well designed (though, in my opinion they put too much emphasis on guests coming from abroad); workshops and conferences were mixed together very successfully, I believe, and conferences were always moderated in a very conscious manner, taking into account not only questions but also the time available; the subjects were chosen very well (giving due prominence to social issues) and every document shown during the event was immediately accessible online, once the Congress was over. There was a posters session and they kept information and services dealers away from the event. In a few words, it can be said that the professional meeting was very well organized. Maybe, as a criticism (apart from some personal differences) I would point out the lack of contact between the "foreign guests" and the Chilean librarian reality "of trench". I mean, we learnt a lot of this reality by words of people in charge and some colleagues that come closer to talk, but... everything was prepared to look good, to make it attractive. The little "reality" we managed to know was through some colleagues of Puente Alto and a group of LIS students who spoke without restrictions. However, at least personally speaking, I left undone a few things such as visiting a LIS School or entering a public library without having announced it beforehand. I know that it is normal to show the parts that you feel more proud of to your guests, but considering our professional profile, I fail to see the logic behind this argument when it comes to improve our service as librarians. If we do not know what is surrounding us, how we are going to take part in the sort of society we would like to built?

Night had come. Sara never slept. I lost my consciousness in a place that I do not remember and I do not want to, either.

At dawn we were in an unknown place of the Great North of Chile, somewhere between the regions of Atacama and Antofagasta. Outside, one of the most desolated deserts we had seen in our lives, and could we ever imagine in South America, spread slowly across the land, completely dry and absolutely divested of vegetation. The only thing that grew in those sandy grounds were stones. However, and even considering such a grief, the view was astonishing, really very surprising and difficult to believe: dunes tens of meters high, sandy mountains shaped by the wind, deep gorges of stone bitten by the elements, sun rays drawing large and surreal shadows on the ground, summits and precipices among which our coach seemed a tightrope walker

That part of Chile had been the land of the Atacamas, better known there as Lickan Antay, a people that resisted with great difficulty the Inkan arrival (thanks to living in such a wild area) but was defeated by Spaniards, who distribute them in "encomiendas", putting an end to their traditional way of life, that consisted in exchanging salt for highlands products, and highlands products for the ones from the coast, carrying them on the back of large herds of llamas. Their language, Kunza, was spoken until recently by a handful of people, but I do not know is something was rescued or everything was lost forever. If I am not wrong, there were a couple of grammars, but I believe that a book was never written in that language. Maybe its sounds are not lost but nothing is left of their old culture, except a number of mummies, perfectly preserved thanks to the environmental conditions of the region. From the same area but near the coast, come the Chonos, an antique culture that mummified its dead people and covered their faces with a clay mask, representing the deceased's traits. At the present, the whole area of the Great North of Chile (that Chile won Bolivia and Peru in a war that costed the second one its so many times claimed "exit to the sea") is inhabited by the Aymaras coming from the "Collao", the Bolivian-Peruvian highlands. They have brought with them their traditions, their culture and their language, which has spread and has flourished in those solitudes. In both sides of the route I could read many names that sounded familiar to me, indicating paths to villages that were lost between the sand and the horizon: Mamiña, Lassana, and even La Tirana, the place where, year after year, the Diablada dancers honor the "Mamita", the virgin of La Tirana. Dressed like devils, they dance jumping and performing acrobatics while women make their skirts ("polleras") go round and round again. It is in this very place, if I am right, where the masquerades of "indios" dance. They blow in turns a sort of whistles made of wood that only produce a single, dense pitch. The final result is a cadence of two times: in one of them, fifty whistles sound one note, and in the other one, other fifty whistles sound the second one. Maybe, written in this manner, it may seem a bit boring, but it is very impressive when you hear it.

There, Aymara language was spoken, a language with a very particular Andean taste, which we would listen to in the streets of La Paz later on, and that we could only guess now. Yes, there are books written in Aymara, and there are also Aymara librarians, and even an Aymara president who governs a country where, at least on paper, Aymara is an official language. It is a very beautiful language, but it is also very difficult because one of its main features is to add suffixes. While we use a number of words to express an idea, they do the same by agglutinating, in only one word, several suffixes. What they lost in facility is what they get in specificity, as they can add a lot of "tints" to the words, "tints" that we could only get through many roundabout expressions. Something that also happens with Quechua, one of our most pretty languages.

One of the few things that I remember in Aymara is a saying that should be useful to define the sense of the entire journey we made through the backbone of America. It said:

Uñjasaw uñjtw sañax; jan uñjasax janiw unjtw sañakiti

The more or less free translation might be something like: "Seeing, one can say 'I've seen it', without seeing, one must not say 'I've seen it'". If you apply these words to any of the many ones sounding boastful when talking (who in our professional environment, and also in the personal, speak without having had any experience at all), don't you think that the Aymaras truly have a very wise saying?

We were crossing those solitudes with the only company of the sun in the sky, playing hide and seek with the clouds, and the small stones on the ground. I did remember that towards the West, where the Andean range rises, there are the amazing National Parks of the Great North of Chile, among which one of the most outstanding is Isluga, full of salt mines and parinas (Andean flamingoes). I remembered having seen photographs of huge flocks of flamingoes coloring in pink a salt lake, and wandered why Latin Americans do not recognize the extraordinary beauty of our lands. It also came to my mind that, a bit further to the north, on the very same range, there are the Payachatas ("twins" in Aymara), the two volcanoes named Parinacota and Pomerape. And small lakes and more salt mines, and thousands of small communities with lovely names such as Socoroma, Visviri or Cariquima. And the sounds of big ensembles of pinkullos, that is to say, groups of several players that play cane flutes of different sizes and tunings, but similar in shape, creating unique harmonies, rhythms and sounds that cannot be repeated out of there (have you heard them anytime? Have you listened to the tarkas, the waka pinkillos, the choquelas, the mokolulos, the mohoseños...?) And the rumble of huge toyos (sikus or panpipes almost two meters long) accompanied by very big wankaras (drums) that beat like a huge heart, poom-poom, poom-poom, while the musicians overblow the reed pipes and make them burnt into sounding flames.

At the same latitude but towards the coast, it is located the harbor of Iquique. Any lover of Latin American music and history remembers the story of the Santa María de Iquique slaughtering, collected in a few books and by the Chilean group Inti-Illimani, who immortalized this dark piece of the Chilean history in a very beautiful cantata. It happened at the beginning of the last century, when northern Chile was still the "Salt Empire" and the local communities were terribly exploited –under inhuman regimes– by the multinational companies settled there. A high-numbered group of salt-miners (and their families) went to the "Big Harbor" of Iquique to ask for some improvement to their work conditions and wages, and they were killed by the gun-machines of the Chilean army in front of the church of Santa María de Iquique. Hundreds died... but nobody spoke about them anymore; usually, the corpses of poor and disadvantaged people never have a noticeable presence on the conscience and the memory of wealthy societies. Neither the dead bodies of the rebels, those who struggle against the unfair conditions and claim for a little piece of justice.

Most of those killed workers were Aymaras. It is another reason –one more– for forgetting them, in a continent where the dark color of the skin is a synonym of shame and discrimination.

Just some miles behind, we left the beaches of Pisagua, where some years ago were found the bodies of a lot of people executed during the horror and dictatorship years of Pinochet government, the man whose death provoked so much happiness in a part of Chile and –as incredible as it may sound– so many tears in the rest of the country.

Little by little appeared the first bushes of yareta, shrub-sized and flattened little trees that are normally used as combustible in the highlands. Curiously, these plants take years and years to grow up: I remember having read some botanical reports stating that some big yaretas have probably lived a century, for they grow only a few centimeters a year. To burn them looks like a mortal sin against Mother Earth, but it is actually the only available material.

Further on, after noon, we crossed Pampa del Tamarugal, a place populated (supposedly in a natural way, even though the geometric disposition of the plants looked too regular to me) by tamarugos, trees that survive in these dry deserts and which provides the only little shadow you can find in these areas.

I remembered (after the Archaeology courses I took when I studied History) that the human settlements living in the coastal deserts of northern Chile and southern Peru were located in the valleys that came down perpendicular to the Andean range, fed by the ice-melting waters. There, real oases were created, where people cultivated their crops and bred their flocks. Today it is still possible to see some of those little valleys, irrigated by the almost invisible waters of a river running through a stony and thirsty riverbed.

We crossed through the Quebrada de Codta (Codta's Gorge), a lunar landscape that astonished us with its shapes, its sizes, its shades and its impressive majesty. We had lunch in Arica around four in the afternoon, after a couple of short stops (one of them in Coquimbo, a coastal city without attractive but placed in a quite interesting natural scenery). When we came down of the bus and we sat in front of our meals, we already did not recognize the lowest part of our bodies. The extremely-highly-terribly-obligated visit to the WCs provoked Sara's exasperation (she preferred to wash herself with the water of a street-tap, as the bus-drivers did) and my nauseas (even if I am really used to bad hygienic conditions due to my field work in difficult places). Anyway... around five in the afternoon we crossed the Chilean-Peruvian border without problem, excepting some Peruvian citizens who had "forgotten" their visas or who carried prohibited devices in their baggage and who had to stay there, in the middle of this nothingness, with the only companionship of the soldiers.

We had dinner in Tacna, a huge city that, in the middle of the night, extended its lights until where our eyes could reach. From this point onwards, the "Ormeño" company did not pay either lunches or dinners. With a lot of luck, the drivers would stop somewhere in order to allow the passengers to give some rest to their almost destroyed legs. Dawn found us watching the amazing southern coast of Peru, a really unforgettable spectacle. But this will be the subject of our next post.

Image.