I sit in a tiny Quechua Indian village tucked away in a hidden valley three hours from Cochabamba. I've been coming here since 1991, for many and varied reasons. The first time that I came here I helped our friend Sister Lourdes cart a box of hot, pissed off bees from the city. She liked to make honey. Too bad the net around the hive tore when we were carrying it across the river.
That same year I backpacked four hours to come here with my wife to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. We hitchhiked out atop a truckload of granite from a quarry a few villages away. Two gringos sitting on top of a truckload of big rocks. No, that didn't attract any attention at all. Then we all came here in 1995 when we adopted our son and wanted a sane place to try out being a new family. And so on and so on…
This week I have come all by myself to this gathering of adobe houses, sheep, goats, humble farmers, and gentle weavers. By myself but with my wonderful dog Simone. I'll be here for five days, a retreat to see if I really can write this novel that has been filling my mind and a half dozen file folders for a decade. Here's a little day by day account of what it is like to be out here alone for five days. If somewhere in the middle of it I go slightly mad, please be so kind to excuse me.
An Australian friend of mine told me yesterday that she could never spend five days by herself, that she would drive herself crazy. Hey, I can drive myself crazy at home. Usually it is over such important questions as, which of the two pairs of sneakers that I own I should wear that day (I only wear sneakers). At least here I won't drive anyone else crazy, like over the fact that I am reliably late for everything I ever do. I have tried to explain to people that I have my own time zone but no one buys it.
Simone and I spent most of the day getting here, driven here by a man with a rickety Nissan for hire and no apparent fear of driving along washed out gravel roads on the ridges of cliffs. At dusk Simone and I found a break in a thundershower and took a long walk through the village (annoying all goats along the way) and to a spot where you can see the whole panorama of this spectacular Andean valley.
I tried rewriting the opening of my novel for an hour or so, with little satisfaction. Maybe I'll post it here at week's end so the people who dislike my political views can also dislike my feeble attempts at fiction as well. We have so few opportunities in life to bring people genuine satisfaction, seems like I owe it to them, no?
I am taking a break from the painful task of pruning and editing the weed patch that is my attempted novel. Sitting outside of the tiny 11'x7' room that is my temporary home here, I can see across the dry river to the hillside across the way. A woman who looks like a white and pink dot in the distance is sitting weaving at an old, primitive loom propped up against the front of her brown adobe house with its thatched roof. She is my nearest neighbor here. I can see the family's small supply of clothing stretched out across what looks like a pile of sticks, left to dry in the sun. A half dozen chickens are running around the laundry pile. I don't think that any of the clothes actually belong to the chickens. I haven't been out here that long.
The only clock here in the countryside is the one that rises in the east and sinks in the west. People here know its rhythms and order their life accordingly. For the second day I was witness to the morning rush hour here. An old woman with a dingy white felt hat and a wide brown skirt was menacing her goats with a tree branch as they strolled past my door. She was trying to persuade them off to some pasture where they could spend the day eating.
I think a lot of people would like to do that, spend the day eating.
Simone and I also ran into a large black and white cow on one of our walks, attended by a small girl walking behind it. The dog and I both agreed that large cows have right-a-way.
We've taken to ending each day here with a long walk at sunset up to one peak or another. Today we got a late start and by the time we reached our destination dusk was making the rocky trails hard to see, with at least another forty minutes ahead of us for the walk back. Concerned farmers and short women carrying drop spindles seemed to pop out of nowhere on the path back, warning us (my dog and I) that it was too late to walk. We had offended, it seemed, their sense of timing with the sun. Thanks to an early, bright moon, we survived.
Don't ask about the novel. Simply put (and I believe this is a literary term), it sucks. And chewing coca leaves while writing, I might add, while perhaps making one slightly more alert, does not make the quality of the writing any better.
I had a visit this afternoon from my friend Lucio. He lives here in this village with his wife Fresca. Fresca is one of the community’s best weavers. They have three children. On some Christmases they come to our house for dinner. Lucio told me a story that says a lot about what is going on in Bolivia right now.
Lucio's oldest daughter, Marina, is twelve. She doesn't live here any more. The local school stops at the fifth grade. To go on any farther she had to move three hours away to the city to live with an uncle. Her father visits her every two weeks or so. She comes home during the long breaks for Christmas and summer. That's it. She is twelve and that is the contact she has now with her parents and her two younger siblings. This year her brother is finishing fifth grade. Next year he'll be in the same boat.
So the family is thinking of leaving for the city, thinking of leaving the land that their families have tilled and lived on for generations. What else can they do to keep their family together? Five families have already left this tiny community this year for the same reason. In ten years who will still live here? Anyone? All for the lack of some classrooms and a steady commitment by the government to send teachers here.
Welcome to Bolivia. This is why the cities are expanding. Life in the rural parts of the country is slowly becoming economically unsustainable.
The cities aren't doing much better. There, families are looking for ways to send their more ambitious children abroad. Spain is the favored destination now. Easy to get in with a tourist visa. You speak the language. Less hostile in general than the USA and more economic opportunity than Argentina. Barcelona is becoming a Bolivian colony I hear. Sounds fair to me, from a historical point of view.
Families leave the countryside for the city, for lack of schools and work. Bolivians leave the cities to seek their fortunes abroad. Families get left in the dust. Economics at work. If Bolivia loses its rural life, as it may well in the next generation if nothing is done, it won’t just be Bolivia that will be the loser, it will be all of us. Maybe we need an Endangered Species act for Ways of Life.
In other local news, the event of my getting lost last night seems to be the lead story here. At least, I am told, it was at a community meeting this morning. "Some gringo with a black dog was wandering around last night in the dark," it was reported. I apparently was forgiven when people figured out it was the same gringo who brought Christmas presents for the children last year. Good thing we did that.
Tonight Simone is insisting that we leave earlier and take a clearer trail. Sometimes dogs know best.
My blue canvas bag is packed. In an hour or so I leave. As soon as my ride comes. The iffy Nissan. I will miss being in this place, a lot. But I also know that it is time to go home. This morning I heard one of the local goats having her say and I thought it was a cell phone ringing. Yup, time to go back to the city.
For those of you concerned about such matters, Simone had a lovely time. She got in many fine naps and a half dozen solid hikes. These, besides food, are her two favorite things.
Oh right, the novel. Well I have about seventy pages down. Some of it is awful. Some of it might actually be good. This, of course, is what editing is for..