Las Alesitas is a street fair/market that stretches for about half a mile on Sucre’s Avenida Manuel Molina. On Monday we go there with Carlos, the young man from the campo who lived with us four years ago, and a Colombian friend of his. Most of the vendors sell miniatures: houses, pets, food, drinks, cars, trucks, people, money—almost anything you desire can be bought. The idea is to buy something that you desire, place it in your home, and it will grow into the real, full-size equivalent within a year. The origins of the custom derive from an ancient Andean tradition in which miniature animal figures were buried with the expectation that they would grow into real animals.
Downhill from the market fortune tellers sit in a row. Besides cards, they use two other methods. One fills a glass half full of beer, tears a hole in the top of an egg, pours the egg white in the beer, and reads the shapes that emerge among the bubbles. Another pours molten tin from a hot pan into a bucket of cold water, then takes out the resulting mass, which looks a bit like a gondola, and reads the bumps and forms on the strange, glistening sculpture.
On Tuesday, Ryan, Paola, Karen, and I visit Cayara, a 16th-century hacienda not far from Potosí. (Ryan and Paola are close friends: Ryan is an American potter, bodybuilder, and former Peace Corps administrator who has been in Bolivia for twenty-eight years and lives alone in an extraordinary house he has built overlooking Sucre, and Paola is a young Bolivian who was born in Potosí, works as a tour guide, and loves to travel.) Two relatives of the owner, Arturo and Yvette, whom we had met in Sucre on Monday night, serve us a lunch made mostly of food grown on the grounds or nearby and spend a few hours showing us the rooms, books, paintings, furniture, and implements there. The most outstanding for me were the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books bound in vellum, the pre-Columbian pottery and artifacts, and the ornate furniture and paintings. It’s astonishing to consider that all this work, all museum-worthy, is still in private hands—and in good ones.
Potosí is a puzzle. It was once the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, with two-and-a-half times the population of Paris; now it has only about three hundred thousand residents. It is the most labyrinthine city I’ve ever been in, with narrow and winding streets and few thoroughfares. Overlooking it is a mountain, Cerro Rico, which was once the world’s primary source of silver; now there are so many mines in the mountain—some six thousand, with over twenty thousand miners working there—that the mountain has begun to collapse. The highest major city in the world, it is the historical site of almost unbelievable misery, with countless miners losing their health and their lives. This history lends it a kind of tension and excitement similar to that of Rome, Jerusalem, and Berlin.
Of the several foods that are characteristic of Potosí, perhaps the two best known are salteñas and k’allapurka. Salteñas are a lot like empanadas: round pieces of dough filled with meat, vegetables, potatoes, and eggs, folded and crimped on top, then baked in a wood-fired oven. They’re common in Sucre and La Paz too, but the most traditional ones in Potosí have thinner, unsweetened dough, slightly burnt, while the ones I’ve had elsewhere are too sweet for my taste. In the salteñeria we go to in Potosí, they bring them out of outdoor ovens on huge trays and customers take from one to a half-dozen. K’allapurka is a porridge-like soup made of corn meal, meat, potatoes, and spices; a black rock that has been heated in a fire is put in the middle so that the soup bubbles like a volcano. You have to use special igneous rocks, since river rocks, for example, will explode when heated.
On Wednesday we visit the sixteenth-century church of San Francisco, home to the oldest sculpture in Bolivia (a striking 1550 Christ on the cross made of cactus wood and human hair) and an extensive crypt; the tour takes us to the roof, with its dozens of tile-shingled domes. And we climb up the Torre de la Compañía, an eighteenth-century tower in the characteristic mestizo style, with spiral columns and sculptured arches.
Here are a few photos; I will post more soon.
Manhattan, as seen from Bushwick
Jacky in Brooklyn Heights
Thalia in Brooklyn Heights
Ryan's house in Sucre
The roof of the church of San Francisco in Potosí (Paola's photo)
A street in Potosí, as seen from the roof of the church
The Torre de Compañía and surrounding buildings, Potosí
The church of Santo Domingo in Potosí