Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Todos Santos

The indigenous people tell us,
“Your dead seem to travel far beyond the stars and never give another thought to those left behind. Our grandfathers never stray far from the valleys and streams and families they love.”
As the feast of All Souls (Dia de Defunctos) approached, women in town were buying large bags of flour and baking breads. Men walked to the cemetery with machetes and shovels to clear the five foot high vegetation.
This man with his hearing-aid over his shoulder is fixing the grave of his wife, Francesca.
In their homes, they built altars with photos of deceased family members. Jean and I made this one for our families.
Students built one for school friends who have died. There are seven names on this list
Then on the night of November 1st, all will wait. The deceased come to spend the night with the family and check that everyone is OK in the house, that they are eating well. Favorite meals and drinks are set on the altar with flowers and party streamers. Always there is a bread ladder to pass between heaven and earth, a dough burro, and bread T’anta-wawas (old babies) with laughing plaster faces. There are pastries like biscochulos with Singani (grape whiskey) in them. All this food is distributed to visitors who come to the house to pray with the family.
The dead will stay in the home until the next afternoon when the family will accompany them to the cemetery. There they all gather with drums and flutes.
Many of the plot sites have little houses built over the graves on which families stack up breads to be given away, bananas and drinks like a tree-bark whiskey called Chuchu-wasi.
In late afternoon they leave the cemetery. They move down the hill to sit on the grass under the shade trees and drink and chew coca leaves and talk – together in a timeless ritual, the toothless old ones, the women in derby hats, the men sharing cigarettes, the children chasing the dogs and chickens.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cock Fights and a Midnight Sarenade to the Virgin

The feast of the patroness of Coroico, the Virgin of Candalaria, is a week-long celebration - a parade of flowers, masses, rosaries on the streets, a procession of traditional dances in which almost everyone is involved.

The dancers go on their knees and cross themselves before the Virgin.

The underside of this is the steady drinking (induced ecstasy) of the indefatigable celebrants.

Some are not dancing this day. They have gathered from distant towns for their kind of sport - the cock-fights.

Birds are weighed and matched within grams.

Challengers from distant La Paz and Caranavi are slated to face the roosters of local favorites like Enrique and the Senior Mattas.

"Points" are taped to their legs and the birds are thoroughly watered down to keep them cool.

After the money is placed the pair of cocks is put in the ring.

They fight for a half hour while their trainers urge them “Sube, Niño” (“Up, my boy”) and side bets are called. The birds begin furiously, leaping, feathers flying, gradually slowing until they are circling against each other ...

like boxers in a clinch – bleeding and exhausted.

At the end of the round they are quickly retrieved by their trainers. If no bird has been killed the match is declared a draw and all bets are returned.

The cocks will probably fight again in three months. (Of the three rounds I saw, each ended in a draw.)

And this continues on into the night.

Meanwhile back in the town plaza a mellow trumpet fanfare sounds.

The Mariachi band signals the beginning of the midnight serenade to the Virgin.

Church doors are thrown open and the dancers follow the sombreros up the center aisle for a last round of songs to Mary ...


before returning to street dancing and fireworks and drinking and stumbling happily home.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Camino Inca - Paying for My Sins

"The vast movement and agitation of human life opens on to a road which leads somewhere. And that road climbs upward towards the peaks, shrouded in mist from our human eyes. The final stages of the ascent to which the cross calls us compel us to pass a thresh hold." - Chardin

" We do this by bearing the burdens of our life with simple fortitude and without ostentation. "- Rahner

I spent holy week paying for my sins. Many people of Bolivia make a pilgrimage during holy week, often walking long distances on the old Inca trails through the mountains. I accompanied a group of 15 young people and two Bolivian priests on a three day “peregrinacion” from the Christo statue on the mountain pass of La Paz (almost three times the altitude of Denver) down to the lush and rainy valleys of Coroico where we live - a journey of 60 miles by the main road.

At 11:00 A.M. the mountain pass was a world of white mist and snow as we began the descent on the steep but wide and stone-paved road of the Inca. I had a sturdy walking stick, a second pair of shoes, dry food,a plastic sheet, small blanket, heavy wool socks and sweater, an assortment of pills and bandages from Jean, and a bag of coca leaves against fatigue.
Snow began to drift down as we came upon the ruins of a Chaski rest stop.
The Chaski were the famous Messengers of the Gods - foot relay-runners who sped messages across the empire pony-express fashion.

We slowly made our way down into treeless valleys where sheep and llamas fed on lichen and moss.
Smiling, kind people emerged from their stone huts speak the Indian language - Aymara.
The sound of running water was everywhere.

Children with sun-wind chapped cheeks asked – not for candy – but for bread.
They silently offered the walking sticks they had carved for sale for 50 centavos (seven cents).

After five hours of steep descent, my knees and hamstring muscles were rubber. A young companion , Marlene, who had blisters and myself with wobbly legs fell well behind the group. About six in the evening we dropped down in to a river valley with trees and flat green areas of sheep-cropped grass where we found our group waiting. Other groups were setting up tents. I hobbled across the cable bridge toward them, knowing I could go no further. But our rested group had other ideas. They wanted to proceed a couple of hours to Choro before camping. Ugh. If I had had a brain in my head…. but no! With Marlene I shouldered my pack and tagged behind.
We continued trudging through the gathering gloom and twilight with my heart sinking along with the sun. The path followed a steep valley along a loud river. It was narrow now and steep and muddy. We stepped from one rock to another up mountainsides then down to the river and up again. In many places streams ran down the middle of the path as we clamored over the rocks by flashlight. There should have been a full moon but it was foggy and now began to rain. After Marlene and I had been moving for three hours, we had not overtaken the group. Occasionally we came upon places in the dark that were flat enough to camp, but I had Marlene in my charge and she wanted to rejoin the group.

As I resigned myself to marching until midnight…a miracle! We saw lights in the distance. We arrived at an adobe house at 9:30 PM and learned that Choro was 15 minutes down the mountain. And it would have been had we not proceeded to lose the path in the rain and dark. When we encountered our group they were already settled in a family’s scattered huts. The girls were in a dug-out stone shelter and the boys in a tin-roofed open shed. I angrily confronted the leaders, calling out, “This walking in the dark was the worst idea yet....!” They agreed it was a very bad idea and apologized saying they had misestimated the distance and the trail. They brought piping hot soup, which even standing in the rain was wonderful.
Then I was lead to a plastic tarp laid over leaning poles where I found Salvador and Juan Carlos already turned in and out of the rain. They called it five star accommodation since the tarp had small holes in it. Though it was good to be out of the rain, most of my things were wet. During the night had some concern about hypothermia, but the heavy wool sweater, though moist, stayed reasonably warm. I took a Tylenol-PM, and put a hand-warmer packet against my chest and slept well enough. By morning I figured I had paid for my last sins and was working on future ones.
The rain had stopped.m
Frs. Eulogio and Alejandro waited by the Chola woman boiling milk in the low shed.
The cost of my lodging plus a tin cup of coffee, and a cup of boiled fresh milk was a dollar.
Other groups had camped with us. An extended Aymara family was packing their cooking gear on mules and traveling to towns further down to obtain Coca-Cola and supplies to sell tourists back in their own pueblo.

So, traveling with them we descended the great humps of mountains into valleys, soft and green and undulant. It was warm and the path became shaded and tropical.
Drinkable water gushed out of the rocks everywhere, churning and leaping and white. Whole cliff walls wept curtains of water supporting exotic moss and plant life. Butterflies of every size and color swarmed the path attracted by mule droppings - butterflies with clear glassine wings fringed in bright yellow-green, and completely transparent wings that glinted in the sun in flight now violet and then yellow, and velvet-black wings with blazing orange swatches. Dragonflies flashed like purple sparks as they flew through the mottled sunlight.
On this day I walked steadily without taking only short breaks and staying well ahead of the group, determined not to march in the dark again. I did stop to dry my things in the sun.

You can see the cut of the path on the distant hillside (center).At dusk, I arrived at our destination and arranged a covered outdoor place to sleep as I waited for the others. But it turned out that all 18 of us slept in a room the priests borrowed. As the rain began again we slept, gratefully dry and warm, with just a tarp between the cement floor and ourselves.

On the third day we did some road walking where modern road overlapped the Inca trail. Then the final ascent from the river valley up to our town of Coroico was a hellish steep, muddy climb of thousands of feet. On slipping, weak legs – I paid for whatever sins I had left those hours. About mid-day our sweat-drenched group emerged from the brush onto the town soccer field. They continued the climb up to the town plaza and the church, and then cemetery for the Stations of the Cross. I stumbled into a café that overlooked the valley and river far below, dropped my pack , leaned my walking stick against the wall and ordered a large, cold Hauri beer …feeling quite purified.

When Jean welcomed me I learned she had not had water at our place for three days - forget the shower. But there was a carrot cake exquisite and a dry bed and loving arms.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mud-oven Chicken Dinner

There are easier ways to cook a chicken, but can anything compare with dinner baked in a mud oven?


Catch, kill and clean the chicken. Stack some spare adobe bricks into a small oven.

Stoke it with firewood for several hours.

...And while waiting, prepare mud.

Rake the coals flat when they have heated the adobe walls white hot.

Slide in the tray of potatoes, camote (sweet potatoes), carrots, and bananas.

Then the pan of spiced chicken - covered with newspaper.

Close the oven and seal with mud so not even a wisp of smoke escapes.

In an hour the aroma of the chicken will beckon you to break open the oven

and strip off the yellowed newspaper to reveal the golden chicken dinner.

A dinner made exquisite by pleasant company.

Our muddy - handed hosts were Willie and Fabiola Aliaga, former students of the University

and good friends of Paul since he lived here in 2000.

Willie manages a large pig operation. Together they raise and sell their own pigs and chickens.

Willie is the designated community leader of the pueblo of Carmen Pampa this year.

In that role he has participated in small group meetings at the capitol with Evo Morales, the Bolivian president.