December 2, 2013
Wednesday the library in Yamparaez celebrates the end of the school year with a charming and chaotic show featuring three songs with dances: “Pienso en tí,” featuring the teenage girls (and a couple little boys) dancing and singing along with the Las Culisueltas video;“What Does the Fox Say?,” which Karen and our kids taught the Yamparaez crew; and a chicha song (chicha is the genre of those Andean songs with an uneven triple meter and childish vocals) I don’t recognize, which the little boys perform. There is also a skit, a reading, four cakes, jello, and lots of little boys being mischievous and cute. The ones who capture everyone’s fancy are Rider, a seven-year-old showman, and Anahi, a beautiful ten-year-old cholita (she wears the traditional dress, unlike most of the kids) who’s the best reader in the library; Anahi did a traditional dance and recited a poem she wrote; Rider sang, danced, and was, in Karen’s words, “just everywhere.”
In the evening we celebrate Chanukah with the Messianic Jews. Carla’s dad, the preacher, points out that the numeric value of the letters on the dreidel—nun, gimel, hey, and shin—add up to the same number as the letters of the Hebrew word for messiah, and concludes that the virgin conceived on Chanukah; I’d hate to point out to him that in Israel those letters are nun, gimel, hey, and pey, which comes up a hundred shy, and moreover that the modern Hebrew dreidel was only invented about a hundred years ago and is based on a German game called trundl. Sour cream (for the latkes) is unknown in Bolivia, so we bring some homemade applesauce.
Thursday we celebrate Thanksgiving at Ryan’s. There’s about three times as much food as the fifteen of us can eat—the celebrants include four Americans besides us, quite a few Bolivians, a Brit, and an Australian. Ryan has painted his kiva a warm shade of taupe; he places a makeshift altar featuring a wildly feathered headpiece and an Andean drum against the wall. We go up to the roof of the kiva after the meal and play a card game called Llama llama; a blue space between the dark clouds and the mountains turns orange when the sun sets. We arrive at 2:30 and have to leave at 7:30 to pick up the laundry, but the celebration continues afterwards; Philly and Randall stay up drinking until 3:00 a.m. What with Matt’s Carolina sweet-potato casserole and the excellent company, it’s one of the best Thanksgivings of my life.
Friday morning we fly into La Paz. The airline called on Wednesday to tell me our connecting flight out of Cochabamba would be three hours late, so I make plans to lunch with Che in Cochabamba; but when we get to Cochabamba, despite having the delay confirmed at the Sucre airport, there’s no delay at all, so we end up eating at a decent Indian restaurant in La Paz. We visit an alley lined with shops selling artisanal crafts and musical instruments; at the end is a series selling items used in witchcraft, ranging from llama fetuses to tiny bottles filled with brightly colored objects. We then visit the huge eighteenth-century church next to our hotel, San Francisco, and are given a tour which allows us to climb to a curved roof of red semicylindrical tiles, and up the belltower; I can’t think of a more stunning architectural view in Bolivia. We then go to Socopachi, a very different neighborhood, to visit a friend who works for Oxfam, Alex; he makes us tasty pisco sours.
La Paz’s buildings are mostly ugly, but its setting is spectacular: it climbs the steepest hills and is overlooked by snow-capped Illimani. Saturday morning we visit its prettiest street, Calle Jaen; on it, the tiny Museum of Precious Metals occupies the eighteenth-century house of the revolutionary Apolinar Jaén. The courtyard floor is made of black and white stones and llama spine bones and the rooms feature exquisite pre-Columbian gold and silver objects. The exhibits—of textiles, masks, feather art, pottery, and much more—in the nearby Museum of Ethnography and Folklore are so extensive yet varied that one could spend a whole day there.
At about 11:30 Saturday night, Alex and I go to Gota de Agua, a peña downtown (peñas are nightspots for traditional music). The place is reasonably dark and cavernous; a few patrons have had too much chicha and are asleep at their tables; we’re the only tourists there. A band of about ten Aymara musicians, most between thirty and sixty years old, all with huge drums and panpipes, emerges. They wear the traditional costumes: brightly colored woolen hats with earflaps and big black brimmed hats over those; bright mantas. The rhythm of the music is incomprehensible to me; it seems to shift with every few measures, and the beats are decidedly uneven, yet everyone plays exactly together. The panpipe melody shifts from player to player with each note; there’s no harmony, but the monophony is doubled in octaves by those with bigger and smaller panpipes. As they pound the drums and blow, they march in a huge circle and bow and dip. Cholitas (Aymara women in puffy skirts, colorful mantas, and tiny bowler hats) and their husbands (in suits) come and dance in the middle; by watching their feet I get a better sense of the underlying rhythm.
Pampalarama is a tiny lake about twelve miles from La Paz, and above it, on a peak called Wilimankilisani, sits a glacier—perhaps the first I’ve been close to. Alex drives us there on a gravel road; a bit above the lake, at about 14,500 feet above sea level, is a tiny inn. We start climbing Wilimankilisani, but after about two-and-a-half hours, when we get to about 16,000 feet—about three-quarters of the way to the glacier—it just gets too hard to breathe (though not for Alex, who has been living in La Paz for three years—he makes it almost all the way to the glacier). The hike is mostly over shale, with plenty of quartz rocks; the streams coming down from the glacier are interlaced with soft, tufty mounds of moss, called bofedales. About a hundred llamas and alpacas graze on these and on the stiff and spiky grasses. Even though it’s Sunday and we’re so close to two huge cities, we only see three other groups of hikers. We finish the expedition with an excellent lunch of white corn soup, grilled llama steaks, and quinoa at the inn.
Today we visit Tiahuanaco, an ancient city over an hour from La Paz. To get there we take a taxi to the cemetery and hire a minivan, who drives through El Alto, certainly the craziest city I’ve seen—with a million people, almost all Aymara, and bigger than La Paz, it sits on a plateau above it, and it’s pure anarchy. Everything is under construction here, made out of hollow bricks, with the second, third, and fourth stories occasionally finished in garish colors and designs. The traffic is insane, with minivans pushing their way through oncoming traffic in streets without lane markings. Finally we get through and cross flat lands with a few cattle alongside the road, the cordillera real—a series of snow-covered peaks—on our right.
In Tiahuanaco are a group of temples which used to be the ceremonial center of a city of 60,000 people, the capital of an enormous empire that collapsed about 1200 years ago. I expected the place to be swarming with tourists, but we only see about a dozen others. The subterranean temple features hundreds of stone faces in its walls; another vast temple, Pumapunku, once was the entrance to the complex if you were coming from Lake Titicaca, replacing the sight of Illimani, the highest mountain in the region (and the second highest in Bolivia). The most thrilling artifacts are the stelas, huge statues of anthropomorphic gods with carvings of snakes, foxes, pumas, suns, condors, and human faces all over them.
I walk through the cemetery when we get back, a crammed, wild maze of mausoleums, then back down to the hotel. Every block the whole way is lined with market stalls and shops selling everything. I buy a block of unsweetened chocolate wrapped in a cacao leaf, but I could have bought so much more—bumpy green fruit called noni, yarns in a thousand colors, ribbons, bread, a hat—you name it, it’s somewhere on those streets. (There’s even a huge four-story building nearby—I went in it yesterday—that takes up an entire city block, entirely filled with tiny stalls selling foods.)
Tomorrow we go to Copacabana, then on to the Isla del sol . . . and I'll post some photos soon too . . .