Bolivia 03: Traditions and libraries
Today, everything has become a touristic atraction. The whole Linares street, an artisans´ street in the old times, has turned into a touristic point. In the "Market of the Witches", you can buy expensive foeti of llama or sheep, and some little industrially-made Andean idols.
In the old times, La Paz used to be a very traditional city. Today, La Paz downtown is just a touristic center, where everything is sold to the curious foreigners. But, if you want to know how real Bolivians live their traditions, you can move to the neighbouring quarters, or to other little villages near La Paz.
In these quarters, you´ll find that, every friday, people takes their time for chewing coca leaves. Even if they can chew coca everyday, friday is an special day. They buy a good lot of leaves and they select the best ones. Then, they start putting them inside their mouth, one by one, wetting them and making a little ball with them. While “creating” this ball (called “acullico”), they add a little bit of “lliqta”, an alcaline substance that is used for avoiding the natural acidity of the coca. Normally, they use bicarbonate as “lliqta”, but they can use “traditional” lliqta made with the ashes of certain Andean bushes.
When the “acullico” is created, they start “coquear”. This verb means “chew coca”, but they don´t “chew” it, actually. They wet it, and they forget it in the inner part of the cheek, waiting for natural cocaine to be liberated from the leaves through salliva. And it works, even if the effects are extremely soft (compared with artificial cocaine).
On fridays, they use to give a cigarrette to the “Ekekos”, too. “Ekeko” is a little, fat, smily idol, representing a good spirit (it´s believed that Ekeko used to be a God in the ancient, prehispanic times). The idol is funny: it´s a fat and short man, smiling, dressed in the Andean fashion, with a “poncho” and a “chullu” (Andean cap) and carrying a lot of “chuspas” (Andean bags) around his body. In these bags, people put corn, coca leaves, money, a little car, a little house, pictures, rice, sugar and all kind of other little things (the idol is not higher than 30 cms.). It´s believed that, everything you put in the bags or over the body of the Ekeko, he will give it back to you. So, if you put corn, food will not lack in your house. If you want a car, just put a little car near the Ekeko, and ask him...
Well, every friday, people put a cigarrette in the smiling mouth of the Ekeko, and light it. They say that they are “giving the Ekeko some smoking”, just for the pleasure of the idol. But it´s believed that if the cigarrette doesn´t burn completely... your next week will be unlucky and terrible. On the other hand, if the cigarrette burns in a normal way and completely, you´ll be lucky and you will have a nice week.
Traditions, traditions, traditions everywhere. Two days ago, I was drinking beer with some friends in a nice place in La Paz downtown, a very popular place where you can find a lot of people cooking traditional dishes in tiny rooms. We ate “anticuchos”, a traditional dish made of slices of cow heart roasted and served in a little bowl, covered with spicy “llajwa” sauce. You have to eat it with your fingers (no forks, no spoon). Well, when my friends opened their beers (“anticuchos” were delicious, but v-e-r-y spicy) they dropped the first draught to the earthen floor of the place. This is called “challa”, and it´s a kind of offering to the Pachamama. They do it when they are in places where you can touch the earth directly. After this, I opened mine, but, well, I had moved my beer so much, and, when opened, it made a lot of foam. Quickly, they took the foam and put them inside their pockets, as far as the tradition says that this foam will bring money to you.
Traditions in every corner, as you can see. I have visited several public libraries in La Paz: I was very curious about the conservation of these traditions in libraries. I was really surprised by their organization. They are simply fantastic, and they form a solid network, including every important neighbourhood of this big city. Bolivians have a deep sense of “community” and “solidarity”, so it´s very dificult to find people who are not working in teams or networks.
The central library of this public network is the Municipal Library "Andrés de Santa Cruz", in the Student Square in La Paz, near the Tourism Office. It´s a very nice building, created more than a century ago like a duplicate of the Argentinean National Library... It has the only "hemeroteca" (newspapers collection) in the city, with ancient first editions of all the journals printed in Bolivia. It has also a 6000-volumes collection in the reference library, and a collection of 7000 ancient books...
And yes, I found all kind of traditions, specially in books for children. I found books written in quechua and aymara, with old traditional tales. And this is a good new, at least for me, an “indigenous librarian” since years ago. I realized that these libraries need a lot of resources and have a lot of problems, but they are satisfying the needs of a lot of users, specially children and teenagers. Even if I didn´t visit them yet, I have been told that in public libraries placed in the poorest quarters of La Paz, the stronger users are women. And that´s really good....
I walk the streets of this lovely city, so strange, so misterious... I say hello to a “lustrabota” (shoe-cleaner) friend I have near my hotel, and I make a call from one of the “human-phones”, people wearing bright-yellow jackets who let you use their cell-phones (and control the time of your call) for 1 Bolivian peso (1/8 of a dollar). Suddenly, a group of teenager girls, dressing like high-school students, hang around my neck, surrounding me... “Hi, blue eyes!!! Can you help us with a little, little coin for our annual collect for poor children!!! Please, please, please!!!! We´ll kiss you if you do it!!!”. I can´t hold my laughter, and I ask “Will you, brown eyes?”. “Yeah!!” they scream. I can´t help: I put a coin in their money-box. My cheeks get red with all the kisses, and they run, looking for more people for their collect (a very popular one in all La Paz, really), laughing and screaming. I smile: this is another hectic and passionate aspect of the Bolivian soul, always funny and active like fire... Tell me: how to resist such a passionate way of life?
Bolivia 02: a magical world is beating here...
If you look for “poorness” here, you can find it everywhere around you. But, I am realizing that it depends on your concept of “poorness”. I guess that a person living in Stockholm would think that my city, Córdoba, is a dirty and poor place. And I guess that this is the reason because I find “poorness” around me. I have some strong pre-concepts about “poorness” and “development”. Buh. Anyway, I have to accept that people here lives well. I found people changing money (from Bolivian pesos to Peruvian soles or USA dólares) right in the middle of the street, something impossible in my country without three or four cops around them (carrying heavy weapons, of course). Bolivians told me that insecurity is terrible in this city, but I have been walking in the middle of the night through “dangerous” neighbourhoods... and I am here, still alive (and I got some good chicha and jokes by chatting with people). Good luck? I don´t think so....
People lives well, I said. OK, there are lots of problems, but I think that Bolivia is in its way to improvement of social and cultural conditions. Bolivian is a worker people by nature. One of the traditional advices in quechua culture (used also as a greeting all along Andean world) is Ama suwa, ama llulla, ama qilla (“Don´t steal, don´t lie, don´t be lazy”). It works like the Ten Commandments for christians, a kind of moral code for everybody. Work is encouraged even in songs. I listened this old traditional one yesterday night, in a peña (popular places where you can drink local spirits and listen/play/dance Bolivian folk music)...
Que lindas son las obreras, trabajando noche y día.
En su telar de esperanzas florece la nueva vida.
Corriendo de amanecida, los delantales volando,
Asi comienzan el día. Lo saludan trabajando.
Si supiera que cantando algún alivio te diera
Mi canto dejar quisiera en tus manos de hilandera.
Como las estrellas, hermosas y bellas.
Que alegres son las obreras, bailemos con ellas.
(What beautiful are the workwomen, working night and day.
In their loom of hopes the new life flourishes.
Running during the dawn, with their flying aprons,
their start their day. They greet it working.
If I´d know that, by singing, I could give you some rest
I´d like to leave my songs in your spinning hands.
What joyful are the workwomen, let´s dance with them)
Work for librarians is hard here: there´s a lot to do. For this task, they need a very strong education. And they´re obtaining it at the Librarianship School of UMSA (Universidad Mayor de San Andres or Saint Andrew´s Major University), here in La Paz, the only one in Bolivia. I have to teach some seminars for the students here, so I am deeply involved in the work of this institution. By reading the contents of the career´s courses, I could check that the quality of the education is very high, at least compared with some Argentinean levels I know. It´s very important to say that they adapt all their knowledge to their social and ethnical situation: courses of quechua and aymara languages are taught here, in order to provide future librarians with the necessary tools for working properly in Andean communities, where these languages are widely used. They are a multicultural society, and they respect their traditions very, very much. In fact, if you go to drink some local beer in a pub or a disco, at night, you will find that they listen international music but also traditional Bolivian music. And people dance it as they dance North American rock or Colombian cumbia.
About librarians, they get a technical degree after 3 years of study. With this degree, they are able to work in libraries. But right now, a lot of students are betting for higher degrees: Bachelor (after 4 years) or Licenciada/o (after 5 years and a final thesis). By the moment, there are not Master or Doctorate degrees here, like in my own country. But the education is solid enough as for working in very good conditions.
The student´s center in the Librarianship School is amazing. People there is terribly active: they organize all kind of seminars and extra-courses, and they are deeply involved in the political life of the University, one of the main focus of independent thought in La Paz. They support other students, they continuously check the work of the teachers, and they have a very well equipped place for developing tasks. It´s a good example for other schools all over the continent (and maybe the world?).
Women are very strong here. I knew that Andean (or Latin American?) societies are specially machist, but I am pleasingly surprised when I found that women are taking a very important role in the ruling of their society, communities and institutions. Even if they may look shy and silent, they are actually very open-minded and desinhibited, and they have a very wide power inside their families and groups. In the new political order being built right now here, women are taking a very big place, and that´s a very good new in a continent where machism has been a “tradition” for centuries. I am not speaking about feminism: I have expressed before in this blog that I consider feminism as radical and awful as machism (actually, I hate machism terribly). It´s about giving everybody the correct role in the social structure, and the same opportunities...
This morning, I sat at the door of a colonial-style church placed in the Old Quarter of the city, and I enjoyed the dawn (orange light dying the snowed Illimani with magical colors... can you imagine it?) while I chatted a little bit with an old woman sat there too, begging for charity. She spoke slowly in aymara. I understood just a part (I am still not very fluent in aymara). But I clearly understood when she spoke about her confidence in a new future. I shared with her my breakfast, and I thought that a whole country is expecting the same thing: a new, clean future.
And they deserve it. I swear it.
Bolivia 01: the Andes through my eyes
Day 1-2. The Andes through my eyes
In front of my feet, I have a trip of more than 30 hours of bus, a trip that will carry me to the top of my continent, in the city of La Paz, under the shadow of the arrogant Illimani. The distance that separates me from my destiny is not only a physical one: it is, mainly, a mental distance. For many of my compatriots, Bolivia -and even Argentinean northwestern provinces- is another world, a universe that works and is governed according to different rules and values; a universe that resembles an exotic or even an incomprehensible element. Not always this new world causes interest or curiosity, at least in Argentina. However, in my personal case, I am fulfilling a dream kept for years in my soul, an old desire that becomes reality again (this is not my first travel).
The route of the first day takes me through the northern area of Cordoba province (where I live); through the desolated salars of the province of Santiago del Estero; through the gorgeous province of Tucumán; and through the yungas (warm valleys with rain forests) of Salta. After crossing some valleys in the last province, I stop in the city of Jujuy, that already exhibits the Andean atmosphere that I am about to discover: other forms, other colors, other smells, other attitudes and customs...
From Jujuy I ascend, towards the Bolivian border, crossing one of the most fascinating routes of this part of the country: the famous Quebrada (gorge) of Humahuaca, declared UNESCO´s Humankind´s Heritage. Every word that has been said about this place is little compared with the sensations felt when those landscapes are there, in front of the eyes... All the lyrics of bailecitos and carnavalitos (traditional Andean rhytms) come to my mind, paying tribute to these painted hills and the cactus and the parties and traditions of that valley and those communities. The rocks looks violently folded in arches of kilometers, and a rainbow seems to be catched within them. The impression is even harder when I cross Jujuy´s highlands (called “puna” in quechua language). Here, colors are inverted: bluish hills are outlined on gray skies, pregnant of dark storm-clouds; brown plains are carpeted by ochre ichos and tolares (species of grass) and crossed by wide streams that only carry drought sands of greenish tonalities... The vicuñas graze in scattered flocks, under the vigilant glance of some solitary mallkus (condors).
It is a real spectacle for all the senses, a travel for the imagination; its visit deserves to be recommended. But, behind all these beautiful landscapes, there is a whole people who needs help. The social reality -as glimpsed from a bus window- revealed lacks and lots of problems; I know these old problems by first hand because I have faced them in other Argentinean provinces. Perhaps the most painful one –always, everywhere- is to see children working hard. I know that I am in a world that is different from my own one, to the one I know. I know that rules here are different, that customs are different... but my head does not stop thinking about education and a more promissory future for all those communities. Something in which libraries can collaborate.
I cross the Bolivian border through the city of Villazón, and I buy there a big load of coca leaves–the first of my trip- to begin fighting the suruqchi (altitude sickness) that started affecting me... I can hardly breathe by the height, and my heart -as well as my brains- want to jump out of my body for exploding outside... The trip to La Paz in one of the most crazy journeys of my life: 13 hours of travel with scales and transfers everywhere, and tons of new things that astonish me, and that would probably displease a lot of compatriots. Luckily, I learnt –a long time ago- to enjoy and to laugh with with every "strange" detail that appears in my life, so I share my food and my laughter with the other travellers, while we cross the lunar rocks of Tupiza, the lovely city of Potosí -home of miners and “tios”, the devils of the mines-, deserts of redish sands and streams, snow-covered ranges, and villages with all the houses built with "adobe" (a mix of dry grass and mud), hanging from amazing precipices, over little rivers… It´s worthy of a film, really. But my main delight is the people, a different people, smiling all the time, never forgetting the word “friend”, offering help all the time and demonstrating an incredible and rooted sense of comunitarism and solidarity, something that Argentineans -and so many peoples abroad- would need to acquire in industrial amounts.
For many foreigner visitors, Andean countries are just a curiosity, a set of touristically promoted places that would not give much more than a picture. Few people really stop to chat with real Bolivians, to be interested in their life and their customs, to know their problems and their hopes… Few people are ventured to eat all their meals, to drink all their drinks, to cross all the corners of their cities, to sleep in all their places and to share all their things. I have done it (and I´ll do it in the future, again) and I realized that the mental image that is spread about Bolivia in my country -and in many others- is totally inadequate. I suppose that it is the product of closed minds that do not understand another worlds, different from the Euro-American model, technified and consumist. Here, in the middle of the Andean highlands and mountains, the hearts still take their own time to beat, to feel and to remember. And I want mine -totally crazy because of suruqchi- to learn to do the same.
The city of La Paz –where I finally arrive- receives me in a Bus Station where posters are written up in three languages: spanish, quechua and aymara. I remember that I am in an openly multicultural and plurilingual country, a country that does not wish to hide its varied indigenous roots and their racially mixed stems and fruits. The city of La Paz vitally beats in each corner, in each market, in each street... The indigenous world is intimately combined with the western world, giving birth to an incredible, exciting mixture, that distills tradition and joy-of-living by its four flanks.
Settled in the valley of the Choqueyapu river, La Paz virtually "climbs" the vertical walls of the valley and it grows and grows through the upper highland, forming two clear urban sections, "Low" La Paz ("El Bajo", old, traditional city) and "High" La Paz ("El Alto", formerly a favela neighbourhood that became almost a new city). It´s perpetuated, by this way, the classical Andean dicotomy (high and low, masculin and femenin, right and left...). The street-sellers make of the city their dominion: it´s incredible to see their capacity for selling any imaginable thing in the street, from a juice of natural coconut to fried lamb (fried right there, in front of your eyes), or DVDs with films that still have not been projected in cinemas. Their capacity for varying prices and for bargaining is also admirable, and it would exhaust the nerves of many foreigners customed to fixed prices. But this is one more aspect of Bolivian soul: a dynamic fire, always in movement, noisy in the cries of the bus drivers, smiling in the faces of the children and always interested in the others, always sensitive and always friendly...
The stamp of the proud aymara women -who never, never stop wearing their traditional clothes- and the one of the thousands of lustrabotas (shoe-cleaners) -hiding their faces under a pasamontañas for protecting their identities from the fingers of shame- give me the “good night”... or is it a “good afternoon”?