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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 4

Over the next few months La Paz became the base to which Tashi and I returned after journeying into Peru and other parts of Bolivia. La Paz is a city of contrasts, a city where the poor beg on the steps of churches whose interiors are covered in gold, gold robbed from the Incas and melted down to be carted off to Spain or to adorn the emblems of an imported religion. The Spanish conquest took place at the time of the Inquisition. At night in my hotel room, while Tashi slept peacefully beside me, I read history books that revealed terrifying accounts of cruelty and savage greed, the tragedy of the Inca nation. The country had never recovered from the conquest. Poverty was everywhere. Every few minutes children, often not much older than Tashi, entered shops and restaurants, begging or peddling their meagre wares. From early in the morning women brought their produce into the streets. It took a while to uncover, behind the stoic mask of endurance, the true feelings of passion and despair of these women with their bowler hats and multi-coloured skirts and petticoats. These gave them the appearance of having large behinds, or perhaps this was due to the staple diet of potatoes of which I encountered over twenty varieties.



The women functioned as the backbone of the society. In the Bolivian cities of La Paz, Cochabamba and Vera Cruz, Tashi and I boarded in alojamientos that typically housed several families. Toilets, water and cooking facilities were shared. I was usually the only man cooking in the kitchen or drying clothes in the courtyard, the heart of the alojamiento, where the washing was done and where the children played and the women reigned. The men worked in the tin and copper mines or on the land. Many were unemployed and wiled the time away drinking and discussing football and patriotism in bars. It was the women however who kept the world turning. I had become a somewhat reclusive traveller and these Quechua women helped me restore faith in the resilience and nurturing qualities of the human race.

I stumbled across an open-air amphitheatre by accident one Sunday afternoon. I had taken Tashi to see a circus performance. After the show, lead on by the Sunday crowd, we arrived at a ticket office with a queue of people. Music came from inside. Entry tickets were cheap. We shuffled inside and found ourselves a place on the concrete seats that descended in rows towards a circular stage. The theatre was half full. Kids climbed up and down the concrete stairs. Peddlers sold ice cream, soft drinks, sweets and plastic toys. Families, lovers, groups of students, contract workers from the South, all came to enjoy their favourite Huayno music and to applaud group after group that sang songs in Quechua, Aymara or Spanish. The stage set-up was simple: the musicians formed a half circle around the single microphone with the singer in the centre. More often than not this would be a woman, who, bottle of pisco in hand, sang plaintive songs of lost love and doomed passion in a sharp nasal voice that reminded me of Chinese opera singers. Her accompanists, generally shabbily dressed men, gave her a rousing backing with accordion, guitar, ten-string mandolins or charangos and sometimes violin. The performers appeared to be more comfortable at a village wedding than at a city theatre, but what they lacked in stage presence was made up for by the ardour of their song. I heard some wonderful music in Bolivia but none that moved me as much as the tragic songs I experienced on these Sunday afternoons. Laments of separation, impossible love, misfortune and treachery sung over a furious dance rhythm. Tashi called it "the music that makes my daddy cry" as it brought me to tears on many occasions. I spent days searching the market stalls for Huayno recordings. I begged and bartered with the record sellers to make tapes for me. These precious recordings were some of the few things I managed to carry out of South America when I departed seven years later with my life in jeopardy.


Tashi and I had travelled into Peru in search of some solitude far from the bustling activity of La Paz with its curfew, military presence, mad drivers and noisy markets. I was hoping to find a child-friendly environment and learn more about the Indians and especially their music. Rural areas and villages were a perfect playing ground for Tashi to make friends and for me to write and reflect. Taquile was the ideal place. A real island amongst the famous floating man-made islands, fashioned from the tortora reed that grows abundantly in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The floating islands were populated by the Uros Indians who constructed the islands from many layers of reeds that rotted away from the bottom and were replaced at the top. These islands had become a tourist attraction and were over-commercialised. The fishermen, craftsmen and shepherds that populated Taquile, however, cleverly foresaw the danger of a tourist invasion and took control themselves. They operated the passenger boats, kept visitors to a reasonable level and arranged accommodation for them with local families. There were no hotels, no roads nor cars or bicycles, no electricity or running water. Due to the distance - twentyfour kilometres - from the mainland, and the lack of facilities, few visitors stayed overnight.

(To be continued)