By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza
[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]
Sunday, 26th of November found us at dawn in some place of southern Ecuador, without having slept at all thanks to the dreadful service offered by the bus company "Rutas de América", which miraculously made extraordinary efforts to show worse conditions than our famous and detested enough "Ormeño".
After crossing the Babahoya River and fields and more fields with banana plantations, whose deep green was interrupted here and there by the bright whiteness of some herons, we arrived in Puerto Inca, a typical sylvan population where stopped many lorry drivers carrying bananas and the very few travelers who crossed this region northwards or towards the Peruvian border. The dirtiness of that place might have been the perfect ingredient for a novel about "underdevelopment". However, the settlement has certain charm and character: those many cooks placed outside, the fruit stalls were we haggled the prices with a very young salesgirl who was not eight years old, the long distant travelers and the people commuting from home to their working place...one place to another
More banana plantations followed; huge irrigation channels and narrow sandy paths that got lost in the thick emerald green; the classical silhouette of flocks of "cebúes" (bovid that resists very hot and humid weather better than cows); settlements with spear houses built over wooden columns to avoid the turbulent waters of the countless rivers running below... Sara wrote down in her diary...
"Hills covered with clouds, very high trees, many rivers, properties, fruit markets, lots of people eating in the streets, whole families sat on the back part of small old lorries swallowing dust and smoke, a great amount of cloths hung on the shore of small rivers and irrigation channels..."
We crossed the Ecuadorian-Peruvian border –mentioned in previous posts as of the most problematic– between Huaquillas and Aguas Verdes the very same day presidential election in Ecuador was being celebrated. Once in Peru things were completely different: we suffered a couple of retentions on behalf of the police and were literally locked up behind bars while our luggage and the bus were carefully revised. At midday, behind the dirty glass of the bus windows we could see miles and miles of rice paddies, and later the sea again, and the desert shortly after, the same sea and the same desert we had discovered a week before and featured the entire Peruvian coastal line. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the beach and stopped for having lunch in Máncora, the well known tourist center in the north of Peru. From that point onwards there would be only desert in front of us and, from time to time, the view of the coast and the outlines shapes of "rabiahorcados" in the air.
It was very late at night when one of the pistons of the engine was broken near Trujillo. Few hours later, after a sort of rebellion attempt on the part of the passengers, the drivers decided to repair it and we finally could continue our journey to Lima.
On Monday, 27th of November, dawn found us in the central coast of Peru. We were crossing desert and more desert while we stood, in freezing conditions, a stinking bus and a pestilential toilet without water, the unbearable sound level of the films, and the dictatorial manners on the part of the drivers. We stopped to have breakfast 16 hours after Máncora, in a hidden petrol station placed in the middle of nowhere. The best qualifier for the food might be "filthy", but we were really hungry.
At midday we arrived, finally, in Lima. The city did not show us many more surprises with the exception of the governor election result, which, at least in the capital, had been favorable to the reelection of Castañeda. We found a room in the same hotel we had been the previous time and, after having a shower and put on clean clothes we went out to look for something to eat. The sky was dark and the streets were grey but our dishes on the restaurant table looked as tasteful as to illuminate our faces. We decided to taste Peruvian beer and try "cuy" (though it must be written "quy", which is the Quichua name for a Guinea pig, a type of rodent similar to the hamster but bigger that is breed for its meat) From pre-Hispanic times, this little animal is eaten roasted or grilled and you can find it in most Andean inns and restaurants menus from Otavalo to the north of Chile.
After such a traditional meal, we resigned ourselves to buy in "Ormeño" the following bus tickets for La Paz. We would be leaving the day after in the morning and the journey would take us 27 more hours which we thought that would not be so horrible according to the ticket price. We took advantage of the evening to have some rest and we had dinner with some friends, with whom we shared our last hours in Lima chatting and laughing in a "chifa" (popular name of Chinese restaurants in the Andean region).
On Tuesday, 28 of November, we set off for La Paz early in the morning. Still we passed more deserts going southwards. Again, before our eyes, poverty marched on: impoverished populations, mountainous settlements with the sea at the back and the houses covered in dust and sand covering everything... On the one side we crossed walls and walls painted with the names of the political candidates, on the other we could gaze some private beaches and some public ones, adorned here and there with the silhouette of few rich houses and many poor ones.
The oasis that men and women had created in the valleys astonished us once more. There were fields sown with carrots, cotton, potatoes, corn and even vineyards in the middle of that immense desolation. We passed Ica and crossed again the grounds where the archaeological Nazca lines are drawn. Outside there were houses made of adobe, street markets, "mototaxis", small carts with fruit, traveling sellers... Sara wrote down in her diary that churches there had the very same color as the sand, the very same color that had everything actually. Behind the glasses of the bus all was covered with dust, completely covered in dark grey and dull brown. Desert would be with us for a long time, sand, stones, curtains of dust would accompany us the following hours. Near Palpa Sara described the landscape behind our window:
"What a pretty thing the serpentine that made us bending and twisting among sandy mountains to, after the last curve, found ourselves in the middle of a fertile valley, with fields of corn, cotton, reed, and the extraordinary diversity of trees, and small houses made of adobe looking at the extremely thin trickle of water still flowing down the wide riverbed!"
We had lunch on the bus, and the service happily surprised us due to its good quality.
It was almost sunset when we started passing fields of olive trees next to the sea. On both sides of the road we could read the advisory message "sandy area". The road was only an unstable fine line over a field of dunes that were moving constantly as they were nomads and they wanted to occupy again the space that the road had stolen them. We crossed the small village named Tanaka, and from Chala, we turned west towards Arequipa. At dinner time we stopped somewhere under a starry sky that invited us to lay down face up on the sandy quilt of the desert.
On Wednesday, 29 of November, we got up in the heart of the highlands, lands covered with short pastures and "ichos" that the cold wind bended and did not allow to grow higher. That region was the Collao land, a large area of high flat land that separated the different Andean ranges, and where Titicaca Lake appeared as the great puddle formed by the tears of the sleepy gods and goddesses that one day inhabited inside the mountains that surrounded its crystal waters. It is the highest navigable lake in the world. The name of this inner sea, actually written Titiqaqa, means "feline stone" in Quechua. The populated areas of this region were small groups of huts made of adobe and with roofs covered with reed in the traditional Andean style (or with much more modern calamine slates). Around the small houses animals were grazing and the small cultivated fields spread. Further on the communal fields extended over the horizon and were sown with the help of the entire community. The "pirqas" (short stone walls without mortar) divided slopes and dales: from our position they looked like irregular seams in a sort of canvas made of patches.
Early in the morning we arrived in Puno. At last we could see Titicaca Lake from its very shore. It is one of the main "Mama Qucha" (mother-lake) of the whole Andean range.
The houses came down the slopes, the mountains where the frame where the violet and grey tints of the water were immersed. On the shores a couple of "caballitos" (little horses) were resting. They are the traditional Aymara rafts made of pieces of a reed called "totora" tied together and used as boat. There was a lot of "totora" on the shores and peasants cut it and spread it on the ground to make it dry. We could also see the circular nets extended over the lake: people who live near Titicaca live on agriculture, "totora" handicrafts and fishing.
One hour later we left Puno and crossed Juli, a city that forced its way through the wrinkled coastal land. There the first printing house of the region was established in the early XVII century, and it was there where the priest Ludovico Bertonio published his famous "Aymara Language Art and Vocabulary". This was the first piece of writing about the "Jaqe Aru" (human language, original name of Aymara language), a work that continues being a source of valuable information for linguistics and anthropologists.
That part of the region was completely "Aymara". Women were dressed with two or three bright skirts, one over the other; they carried colorful bundles on their back and wore bowler hats over their heads with strips and pompoms that, in the old times, indicated whether they were married or not. Their long plaits were tied with tassels of wool and the cloths over their shoulders were tied with silver "tupus" or simple pins. All of them wore an apron around and their eyes were filled with curiosity...
In Juli was market day. Animals, cereals, grain, fruit, meat, cheese, bread, etc, would be exchanged along that morning in the outside market. People guided their herds of llamas and vicuñas, their small flocks of sheep and their droves of pigs that sometimes had to be carried under their arms. The market was placed on the outskirts of the city and was a meeting point for inhabitants that lived far off and during that day went down to the city and traded their products to obtain what they did not produce. It was midday when we arrived at the Peruvian-Bolivian border in Desaguadero. It was an authentic chaos as the rest of the borders we had crossed on this journey. Finally we came in Bolivia and got another stamp in our passports. Desaguadero was a profusion of colors, of dirtiness mixed with smiles, of outside stalls and little shops, of quiet smugglers and expectant policemen...
From there onwards we only found small herds and flocks cared by girls and more and more houses made of adobe: a lot of poverty wherever we turned our heads to see. The city of El Alto (a slum of La Paz situated in the highland that, because of its impressive growth, had become an immense urban area itself) announced the Choqueyapu River gorge: a deep narrow valley with steep sides where is situated the capital of Bolivia, with its houses, streets and squares hanging on those slopes. The view from El Alto is unusual and surprising, absolutely startling: thousands and thousands of unfinished houses exhibiting their red bricks, covering each square inch of land.
Once in the Bus Station, the first thing we did was to buy the tickets to go to Villazón with the company "Inti Illimani". We felt too soon the "suruqchi" ("soroche", mountain sickness): our head burst, our ears rang, and our heart beat as we were running a race.
We decided to spend our free time walking in the streets of La Paz, city that Sara did not know yet. From the centric San Francisco Church we went up Sagárnaga St., stopping here and there to have a look, play musical instruments and carefully touch the wonderful handmade textiles exhibited on the walls. We walked along Linares St., and saw the luthiers and the Sorcerers Market, full of stuffed fetus of llamas that were supposed to bring fertility to women and lands.
Crossing the invisible Choqueyapu riverbed we led our steps towards the Central Square, with the Cathedral and the Government Palace (in whose façade, along with the huge tricolor national flag, hanged the Wipala, the multicolor flag of the native Andean peoples, placed there since Evo Morales was chosen as the president of the Republic). From there, walking under the slight rain that had started a few minutes before, we went to visit the Ethnographic and Folklore Museum, where we were lucky to find a wonderful collection of ethnographic and archaeological "unkus" (traditional male piece of clothing similar to a long shirt without buttons). Then we trod along the narrow street formerly known as "of the Green Cross", today Murillo St., passing the Ernesto Cavour's Musical Instruments Museum and many famous "peñas" (places where people join together to play and enjoy traditional music). The houses of that little street conserved the taste of colonial times among its wooden doors, its thick walls, its iron balconies with pots of geranium, its old street lamps... Our steps echoed with the stones of the steep pavement...
We ate "salteñas" (sort of small pies stuffed with chopped meat, vegetables, boiled eggs, cheese, etc.) in one of the many stalls of the market while we observed the incessant work of the shoe-cleaners, young boys that covered their face with a winter cap because they considered that their job as bootblack is discriminated by society. It was early in the evening when we went back to the Bus Station and we got on the uncomfortable, dirty, ruined, broken and cold bus without delay. Both of us knew (attending other personal experiences in similar conditions) that the journey La Paz-Villazón would neither be comfortable nor easy. It is a trip that one suffers more than enjoys. The outside freezing air came in through the windows that opened alone with the shaking movements. We cracked our heads on the back of our seats many times because the road were not paved and the rattling of bags, and bundles hitting against each other was a hell of a noise. Many children were sleeping on the floor between both rows of seats. People carried bundles and bundles and bundles of we did not know what...
It was there, in the middle of that highland and in the middle of the night when someone stole my suitcase where I had put my travel diary, my documentation, information related to my professional work and most of our new contacts. Nothing was said, nobody seemed to be in charge, no one moved a finger, no solidarity was expressed. I lost everything. In fact, this travel diary has been written thanks to the notes that Sara wrote down in her own notebook and my memory, and slowly I had been able to recover most of my work and the majority of our contacts. However, the experience left a nasty taste in the mouth that will remain forever.
The Bolivian "prepuna" (previous to the highland) landscape seemed to us more bleak and desolate than ever. There, in Cotagaita, everything looked like sad, ash-colored, dusty... Dried irrigation channels and riverbeds, twisted trees without a single leave, a road that seemed not to have an end, and a group of travel companions that we wanted to have out of our sight as soon as possible...
We arrived in Villazón at noon, on Thursday, 30th of November. In the local police office they gave us the necessary papers to be able to leave Bolivia and cross the border. Carrying our backpacks covered with sand and dust (the bus was opened in its lowest part and we almost did not recognize our luggage when they took everything out), disappointed, exhausted, dirty, hungry and worried for the lost of my documentation, we crossed over the bridge that separated Villazón from La Quiaca in Argentina.
Without much problem we were allowed to leave Bolivian grounds, and with a few recommendations about how to deal with the loss of my documentation and avoid problems in the future, Argentinean frontier army did not ask us many more things.
In La Quiaca, Argentinean police gave me a special document whose fulfillment took me five more hours, which I spent waiting for someone who took me a photograph (there was only a photographer in the village and I had gone three times to his shop before finding him the fourth) and going from one cyber to another trying to find a printer where I could print a number that I had to present to the Police. Meanwhile, Sara remained "growing roots" at the bus station in the middle of a crowded corridor where people from Jujuy and Bolivia were camping with their many children and huge bags.
It was almost midnight when we set off for Jujuy, capital of the Argentinean province with the very same name that is next to Bolivia. We would pass the picturesque villages of "La Quebrada de Humahuaca" (declared Humankind Heritage by UNESCO), where the frontier army would stop us at one in the morning. They asked us to get off the bus with all our bags to get frozen in the cold night and be checked once more.
We would arrive in Jujuy at four if nothing else broke our journey, and at 7 would connect with another bus that, after crossing Jujuy, Salta, Tucumán and Santiago del Estero provinces (hundreds and hundreds of kilometers) would leave us in Córdoba, tired and loaded with a lot of packages the 1st of December and ten in the evening.
The return journey from Quito has lasted six days; we had spent 28 in total since we left. We had crossed four countries plus our own and five borders, toured thousands of kilometers and bore 230 hours on some of the worst long distance means of transport that we had ever met. We had tasted most of the regional and local dishes in the most popular inns that we found; we had seen Latin American landscapes from Temuco in the south of Chile to Peguche in the north of Ecuador. We had traveled along the dorsal spine of America, crossed the old Inkan Empire, and attended three International Librarianship Congresses. We had met really wonderful people, slightly knew the social and cultural reality of the Andean world... We had listened to three different languages and many more indigenous dialects, and discovered ancient cultures that, in spite of everything and everybody, continue struggling for their identity and their survival.
We had seen misery, poverty, desolation, hunger, sickness, inequality, unbalance, discrimination and too much injustice. And, in front of all this we always wondered where the hell the hands that speak constantly of help were. We had also visited very small libraries and listened to the minimal stories of colleagues that worked in infrahuman conditions to provide the services their users really need. And it was also there where we asked ourselves where the "big names", the "academic" people, the "professors" and the president of the "fine" National Associations with their "fine" dresses and their "fine" hands, talking of "fine" things such as "digital libraries" were. We always made us the very same questions and the answer was also the same: those who speak, those who tell, those who claim, those who publish, those live in a universe apart from reality because reality does not suit them at all. Those do not know anything about "real" services, "real" help, about the "real" problems that people face day after day, people that cannot have a shower because do not have water, people that cannot read because nobody came near to teach them. Those "great", those "important" ones live inside their pink bubbles, thinking that their reality is also the reality of the rest, ignoring (as good uninformed ones) that their reality is only for some fortunate only.
Through those thousands kilometers, many things were broken and many more grew again –in a different way– inside us. To the small house in Córdoba did not return the very same two persons that left one month before. Two different persons came back, more realistic, conscious of the sufferings that sow the world with sorrow and pain, disgusted with so much hypocrisy and falsehood, and ready to set their hearts on and give the best of themselves for those unknown people that, with their quiet and anonymous work make possible that many children learn to read, that many young people finish their school years, that many men and women learn a profession, and that many elders entertain their time and be informed. If the journey taught something to the two travelers that have been writing this long diary through the past two months on this blog, it is that there are a good number of people –to whom we listen with admiration and adorn with pompous titles– who should close their mouths forever if they had a bit of dignity. Because the world –the one Sara and I discovered when set off– is very different from the place they want to make us believe. It is much harder, it is much more difficult and if we want to live in it, we should look directly at its face, at that painful face full of very deep scars.
To all those who have followed our steps through the pages of this travel diary, thank you very much. To all those who have accompanied, helped, and welcomed while we had been touring along the Latin America spine, our affection and kindest regards. And to all those who still wonder "How do Civallero and Plaza do for traveling so much?", we can add that we do it with a lot of sacrifice, inconvenience, dirtiness, hunger and tiredness, as most of the poor people –as we– do it in our continent. Please, do not think that putting this into practice is easy. Nonetheless, if you believe that it is so, we invite you to try. You will see, as we wrote above, that our world is neither very nice nor too simple as some people color it.
A huge hug from these two nomads who prefer learning from reality than continue dreaming impossible chimeras.