August 11, 2013
On Wednesday Jacky and Thalia enter the seventh and tenth grades at Colegio Pestalozzi. Despite understanding very little and being the youngest of thirty-seven kids, Jacky thrives there. Thalia, though, gets quite sick after one day and misses the next two. She admits that it’s a pattern: she always gets sick after the first day of a new school; but that doesn’t make her sickness any less real.
Friday night Jack goes to a girl’s thirteenth birthday party at the Hostal Libertad; the entire third floor is devoted to the forty or so kids invited, including the entire seventh grade. The girls are dressed in the latest style, with low-rise jeans and shirts off one shoulder; a DJ is blaring pop music from high-quality speakers, and people keep asking Jacky to dance (he says he doesn’t know how). “We don’t dance at parties in the US,” he tells them, but has no answer to the logical response—“What do you do, then?” He is very happy talking with the boys, but when I come at 9:30 to see if he wants to leave (the party lasts until eleven), he comes right home.
Philly is hosting a barbeque Saturday night and I promise to buy some lomo (tenderloin/filet). I ask seven different sellers at the mercado central, but none of them have any; I finally find one who does—it’s a four-kilo (nine-pound) chunk of meat hanging from a hook. I ask if I can just buy three kilos—no; I ask if she can cut it for me—no. So I bring it home and spend an hour or two washing it, drying it, removing fat and tissue, cutting it with far too dull a knife into barbeque-size chunks (to call them steaks would be unfair to real steaks), and peppering it.
At Philly’s, Randall, an Australian who runs Café Condor and Condor Trekkers, and Carlos, a university student who works at the Café, are preparing the grill, and I hang out with them. Unfortunately Carlos, a real sweetheart, keeps telling me the meat’s not ready to turn, and I listen to him; he, like most Bolivians, likes his meat well-done, and about a third of the lomo turns out quite dry and tough. We finally convince him that it should be grilled “a la inglesa”—red in the middle—and the rest is very tasty, especially with the sauces—Roxana brings a picante and I bring a French sauce I made from the beef fat, onions, red wine, and butter.
It’s a great group. Randall spends three months a year in Berlin giving bicycle tours to tourists to earn enough money to live here for the other nine; the café and trekking operation is non-profit and benefits poor Bolivians, so he makes nothing here. He wants to establish a similar operation in Australia to benefit Aborigine communities, and then one in Africa. His Swiss girlfriend, Remina, is lovely and makes a very good salad. Carlos is fluent in Quechua and tells me that it has forty-five letters in its alphabet and that it’s full of prefixes and suffixes; he’s learning English and is Zannah’s boyfriend; his mother is a Tarabuceña weaver in Candelaria whom we hope to visit soon. Zannah is there too, and wants us to come to Biblioworks soon to begin volunteering. Roxana brings Tonio, who is enchanted by Jacky’s chess set, with half the pieces representing the Incas and half the Spaniards. Alex, a Quebecois who works for Oxfam and lives in La Paz (he used to live in Sucre), comes with his wife and two children; the older, Luca, plays soccer with Jack and Tonio. The Chilean wine is fruity—not just the red but even the Chardonnay—and delicious. I wake up with a hangover in the morning.
I discover that the little shop that sells gallinas criollos (small hens from small farms) also sells fresh cold milk; I buy a liter and it’s delicious, the first time I’ve had fresh milk since leaving the States, but how safe it is I can’t tell (the lady in the shop just dips a measuring cup into a large bucket of it and pours it into a plastic bag)—it’s unlikely to have been pasteurized.
Philly comes to pick us up at 10:15 and we take a bus to the outskirts of town. We cross a river whose banks are littered with trash and populated by pigs and stray dogs; it smells nauseating. At the end of a dirt road is an unfinished brick building built into a hill, with steep crumbling stone steps leading up to the entrance; in it lives Josefina, a Jalq'a weaver of astonishing imagination and skill. In an unfinished, unroofed room, she shows us her work and how she creates it—all woven without plan, creatures appearing on the fabric as they occur to her, yet all fitting together geometrically; we buy two pieces depicting about fifty different animals and demons—one large, red and black, and fine; the other smaller, black and white, made from undyed wool she spun herself, and coarser; and also a very different and much more abstract piece that her mother made about sixty years ago. The most expensive piece, which took her two months to complete, is the red-and-black one, and it costs us about $115. She is obviously very poor, surviving on corn and potatoes, both of which she offers us; her husband, a truck driver, also weaves (in a very different style), but hasn’t been able to afford the materials lately. To see such a brilliant artist living like this would be heartbreaking if she didn’t seem so strong, healthy, and happy.