August 18, 2013
The road to Tarabuco (two hours by slow bus, eighty minutes by a fast one) is paved, but the road from there to Icla (another hour or so) is cobblestoned; Saturday we see two workers meticulously fitting the rocks in. We don’t go the whole way Friday evening, stopping instead at a tiny village called Candelaria, about five miles short of Icla. Accompanying us are Zannah, Carlos, and Paula, who will get her advanced degree in psychology in four months, and is now interning with Biblioworks. The road winds around sparse, steep hills; we arrive after dark.
Santusa, Carlos’s mother, is a weaver, and while Zannah, Paula, and Carlos are preparing dinner, we ask her about a small weaving she has made. She tells us this story, animatedly pointing to the scenes:
The condor and the fox are friends, so the condor invites the fox to a party in heaven. The fox asks how he can get there—“I have no wings”—so the condor offers to carry him on his back. They attend mass up there together; but before they go to the party, the condor warns the fox not to eat too much—it’s impolite. The condor gets drunk, dancing with the stars; the fox sits under the table, eating as much as he can. Night falls; amid the bright stars, the fox is embarrassed and afraid to tell the condor how much he ate, so he decides to go down on his own by constructing a rope out of leaves. On his way down, he makes fun of some parrots, calling them “cacaverde” (green poop). So the parrots chew through the rope. Knowing he’ll soon fall, the fox poops out of fright and calls out, “God is coming down! Bring a bed to cushion God’s fall!” But nobody does. When the fox reaches the earth, his stomach bursts open, and all the seeds from the food he ate fall out. And that’s why the earth produces such wonderful food—from the seeds from the party in heaven.
Santusa, ebullient and transfixing, tells us three more tales, with the fox the brunt of the joke in each. In one, a female fox asks a partridge how her children became so pretty, and the partridge responds that she puts them in the oven so they get nice and brown. Of course, the fox’s children get roasted.
Have I ever met a woman as warm as Santusa? When we tell Carlos that he can live in our extra room in November (Zannah is leaving Bolivia then, so he’ll be alone), she clucks with joy, hugs us all, and says that Carlos and Jacky are “hermanitos” (little brothers). Her loving nature is contagious.
The two major ethnic groups near Sucre are the Jalq’a and the Tarabuco (or Yampara), and the Flores family—Santusa, her husband Damien and his mother, and their three sons, Daniel, Edgar, and Carlos—are the latter. Unlike Jalq’a weavings, which depict a disordered underworld, those of the Tarabuco are multicolored, bright, and tell stories about heaven and earth. Another of Santusa’s weavings tells the complex history of a marriage. Damien, like most Tarabuco men, wears a woven black helmet-like hat with earflaps and a pointed top, leather sandals, baggy white shorts, and a huge poncho striped in black, maroon, and other colors. Santusa wears a simpler black outfit.
During dinner, Carlos tells us that in Quechua there are five completely different k and three t sounds. There are three Quechua words (meaning “together,” “bread,” and “old clothes”) that to us sound like “tanta,” the pronunciation differing only in the sound of the initial t. Then Carlos beats Jacky at chess, and Jacky seems very happy about it.
Carlos’s grandmother, who is around ninety and speaks only Quechua, can name all the constellations and tell time from them. But not tonight—the temperature has dipped into the thirties. It’s no joy visiting the unlit outhouse after midnight.
In the morning we walk past a colonial-era hacienda gone to seed and up a mountain. Thalia feels sick, so she and Karen turn back early; the rest of us spend two hours climbing. The landscape is rocky with various cactii and thorn bushes. We meet nobody on our hike. Jacky and Carlos clamber up like mountain goats while we try to catch our breath; thus exactly how breathtaking the vistas are can’t be determined.
On the way down we cross a tiny canyon whose walls have been burnished into curves by a diminished river. Carlos tells us that after the rainy season (December and January), the landscape is all green rather than desert-like and the water in the canyon is ten feet deep; all the children swim there.
The men of the Flores family built their house themselves about three years ago. They have nine cows, share a flock of sheep and goats with their neighbors (taking turns to take them to pasture), two cats, two or three adult dogs and eight very small puppies, an orphan piglet, an orphan kid (baby goat), and a field for potatoes and corn. Jacky is in heaven, playing with the animals, giving the kid milk in a baby bottle, giving grain to the piglet, horsing around with and helping Carlos. Thalia is still awfully sick, though, which breaks Karen's and my hearts.
The afternoon is largely devoted to baking bread. A big vat of flour (half of it milled from wheat they grow themselves) that has been mixed with water, lard, and yeast is brought into the main (living, dining, weaving) room and large spoonfuls of the mixture are literally thrown onto a sheet on the floor. These lumps dry a little, and then Carlos and Santosa quickly and deftly shape them into balls (I try, but the dough just sticks to my hands). The balls are then flattened into disks and stretched with the fingers like little pizzas. Then masses of branches, many with thorns, are lit and stuffed into the outdoor oven, which is shaped like an igloo. Whenever the fire gets low, more wood is brought, but not big pieces. This keeps up for over an hour. Then Carlos and Jacky go down the street with a machete and cut down a couple of armfuls of fragrant willow branches. These are wrapped around a very long stick with wire to form a kind of giant broom. A wheelbarrow is filled with water, and the broom is soaked. Then, very quickly, Carlos sticks the wet broom in the oven and brushes all the embers to one side. He wets the broom again and repeats the process twice. Meanwhile, the disks of dough have been placed on long boards; we bring these to the oven and Carlos and Santusa place them, two at a time, on a long paddle and then on the hot floor of the oven. Then they close the door; about ten minutes later, they shove all the baked breads into a basket and brush off any embers that have stuck to them. The oven is then reheated with more branches and the process begins again. The result is perhaps the best bread I’ve ever had (they made a small batch without lard for me since I don’t eat pork).
Jacky and I agree: if it weren’t for Thalia’s illness, this would be our best day in Bolivia so far.