January 20th, 2001
There are mountains on all sides of La Paz, but there is one in particular that has caught my eye. I wanted to go trekking along a trail in the Cordillera Real. The topographic map that managed to buy at one store shows a trail that starts from a Quechua village not that far from La Paz. For the past day or so I have been asking around for transport and the usual response has been “go to the market place and wait”.
So packed up with food and fuel for four or five days, there I went. Venancia Burgoa is the place where all the trucks and buses leave from around 1 pm ferrying the villagers back to their homes. I found a bus with a Choquekhota and Ventilla placard up and got on. Even though the bus would not leave for an hour and a half, it was already full with local mountain folks. Senoras with their brightly wrapped bundles, arms full of plastic bags bursting with vegetables, bread, meat and assorted puffed corn candy in shades of yellow and a peculiar bile-green. There were babies swaddled in layers of clothing in their laps and on their backs. Some slept, some lay awake and staring and some bawled at the top of their lungs. All of them Quechua, they seemed to know each other and good-natured banter bounced off the walls. I wished my Spanish was better so I could understand and respond to the many questions asked of me. They have the friendliness of villagers – quick to smile and include a stranger into their midst. An older woman shifted her voluminous skirts to one side and gestured for me to perch on the edge of the seat. I could not refuse but had to mentally gear myself to holding my breath for however long it took the bus to get to Ventilla. “Soap” and “washing” were no doubt, words that did not exist in her vocabulary!
Around 2:30 pm we finally jolted off, through La Paz and then out of it. By some strange miracle, it was not raining and as we climbed out of the Rio Choque canyon, I could even see small patches of blue sky overhead. Higher and higher we climbed, on the dirt road that clings precariously to the side of the mountain. The almost continuous downpour over the past few days meant large chunks of the road were washed away and what was left had turned into a mud bog. Even now there were continuous streams of muddy water that cascades down the steep slopes and rushes across the road in a furious stream. Coming to the narrow hairpins, at especially hairy bits, all the standing passengers got off while the driver and his sidekick maneuvered the bus on a road barely wider than the tires. Skidding, slipping, sliding on boulders, spewing pebbles and rocks, the almost totally bald tires tried to get some traction on a road turned into a streambed. On one side was the steep vertical cliff face and on the other was a thousand meter sheer drop. Small rocks and pebbles rained down from above ricocheting off the bags and bundles and pinging off the propane tanks tied to the roof. Sometimes the bus would stop, stuck on a rock or pothole, listing dangerously to one side, a wheel treading thin air with a sheer drop below for a thousand meters. All conversation inside the bus would come to a halt, to be replaced by fervent mutterings and prayers and clicking of rosaries. Men and women crossed themselves. And then the wheels would find purchase and we would jolt forward again. The people who had stepped off the bus would get back in and conversation would resume inside. This drama seemed to repeat itself with alarming frequency. Going around my head were the dismal statistics of bus accidents and the deaths on roads in Bolivia – they are among the worst records in the world.
But despite the bone-shaking, heart-jumping ride, the scenery outside was sublime. Lofty peaks still wearing a mantle of snow gave way to high steep slopes lower down. And almost all it seemed were cultivated – terraced fields at astonishing gradients. And the colours! A rich red of the earth peeked through the green of grass and a bright yellow of the fields. Here are there were tall ridges that have been eroded over the years and now lie bare. And above it all, between the clouds stood the imposing cone of Illimani, completely snow-covered. I wished I could take some photos. But I was stuck in the back, wedged between a propane cylinder and the old woman with her smelly voluminous skirts. The tiniest movement caused a fresh wave of odour to waft over me. I hugged the propane cylinder and held my breath. We reached Ventilla around 5:30 pm I hopped off thinking tostart on the trail from there. But that apparently was not to be.
There were a group of women sitting on the doorstep at the place where the bus stopped. I asked if the trail started nearby and how to get to it. My question had them solemnly shaking their heads. “No senorita”, they kept saying, adding a lot of other information as well. But this is high-speed Spanish and quite beyond my capability to understand. After floundering a while I thought to thank them and start walking toward the end of the village, where the trail begins. They were up in a trice and two of them had got hold of my hands.
“Peligroso! Senorita, muy peligroso!” they kept repeating. Clearly they were not going to let me on the trail. But I had yet to understand why. There was something going on here – this was not a danger posed by slippery or eroded trails. But what was it? By this time, a small crowd had gathered and between vigorous miming and gesturing, they took me to the post office. And then light dawned.
On the wall of the post office was a poster. A “wanted” poster showing grainy black and white photos of two men. Of Dutch origin, these men were wanted by the police for crimes that I could not fathom but they were clearly dangerous. The villagers believed them to be hiding out on the trail that I wanted to go on and on no account would they let me go. A large group of trekkers was possibly okay but certainly not by myself. And that was that.
There are no buses back to La Paz today so the next matter that had to be decided was where I should stay. The crowd that had gathered had turned itself into a committee. Despite a couple of kind offers to sleep in their house, I told them that I had a tent and just needed a space to pitch it. The committee deliberated and one bright soul mentioned the local school. This evidently met with agreement and a young boy was sent off to the teacher’s house to get the key for the school gates.
Word seemed to have spread like wildfire. A solitary senorita camping out in their school brought hordes of children up the slope. Curious and giggling, they kept up a constant stream of chatter and questions. They wanted to help. Seeing me hammering in a tent peg, they ran to do the same – in all the wrong corners. Tent up, they watched as I assembled my stove and cooked dinner. Soon, as darkness fell they left, called home by their parents.
An older woman who lives in a small house near the school came by a while later and we chatted. After much pestering she finally deigned to let me take her photograph. Tomorrow, she tells me, there is a van going to La Paz in the morning. If I waited at the cross roads, I was sure to catch it.