Exploring the non-stereotypical Bolivia
Posted on 18 July 2013
A journey into the jungle, development projects, stunning art, permaculture and community…
Jean and his colleagues were flying to Santa Cruz to then continue in the Chiquitania region – visiting their projects, meeting volunteers, partners and government officials to discuss their work. I was kindly invited to accompany them and was grateful for the opportunity to see another part of Bolivia, experience rural areas and to be in the tropics again. Nothing feels more like ‘home’ to me than the warmth and humidity on my skin.
We flew to Santa Cruz where the city surprised me. I felt like I was in a different country. In contrast to La Paz it is flat. I mean, really flat. No mounts to be seen, no high rise buildings. Unlike La Paz it oozes modernity with its café culture and trendy Cruceños, yet it remains traditional with its markets selling local crafts, street stalls offering chicha (fermented corn drink) and small radios broadcasting their indigenous beats across the main square.
We headed East from Santa Cruz stopping first at Cotoca for a delicious breakfast of mashed yucca and cheese, pressed around a stick and barbequed. Cotoca is the entryway to the Chiquitania region, where 400 years ago Jesuit priests attempted to convert the Chiquitanos (one of the several tribes that inhabited the area) to Catholicism and established Jesuit Missions.
As we made our way toward San Antonio de Lomerío, eagles, falcons and other birds of prey glided above us, swooping down occasionally into the fields of corn, sunflowers and soy. Behind the fields, walls of thick forest gradually came closer and closer. Eventually we were surrounded by dense layers of green and the road had to be traversed carefully, over ditches, around rocks and through water.
San Antonio de Lomerío appeared – a break in the jungle – clean, neat buildings of natural materials of earth and bamboo, roofed by terracotta tiles, linked by only 1 year old electrical wires. Now they have light at night and computers in the mayor’s offices. We are there in Winter so the temperature is warm and comfortable but I know normally it is stifling hot and difficult to think through the humidity. They grow pumpkins, yucca, corn, rice and some fruit but mostly eat chicken and pork. Despite the fertile conditions, eating vegetables is not part of their culture, which is tough on the vegetarian volunteer stationed there for a year. She works in the area of local economic development – what can be produced, sold and transported? How can the standard of living be improved? The locals aren’t convinced. Do they have enough or is this way of working just too foreign for them?
I see fruit and nut trees. I marvel at the inedible avocado-like fruit growing from bulging trees called the toborochi tree, spreading the remnants of their bright pink flowers, a white cotton-like material, around the town. I wonder if it could be used for something. I watch some native bees coming and going from their small entrance in the ground at the base of one of these trees. Locals refer to them as the pregnant trees which fit with their legend. When the world was still very new, the Aña, or spirits of the darkness, liked to abuse and murder humans. Then they found out that Araverá, the beautiful daughter of cacique Ururuti, who had married the god Colibri (hummingbird), was pregnant and would give birth to a son who would punish them, so they decided to kill her. With the help of a flying seat her husband had given to her, Araverá fled from the village, but the evil spirits followed her and harassed her wherever they found her hiding. Tired, she decided to hide in the trunk of a Toborochi tree where she gave birth to her son in peace. The boy grew up and fulfilled the prophecy, avenging his mother, who had to stay inside the tree until she died. Forever buried in the amphora-shaped trunk of a Toborochi, Araverá likes to come outside in the shape of a beautiful flower that attracts hummingbirds, that way, she keeps contact with her husband.
I smile as the pigs, chickens and dogs freely potter around their village, searching for food and company. Children laugh, play and make their own entertainment. I imagine plunging myself into meditation, art or gardening if I was the volunteer living so remotely for an entire year. Whilst beautiful, I can imagine the challenge of working and living there.
After our visit we continue driving. The darkness closes in while cows and donkeys watch us pass with little interest. Armadillos, porcupines, a tiny rabbit, foxes and a jerboa delight us as they scuttle across our path while an indigenous artisan who accompanied us recounts his story in Spanish. I try to understand but thankfully Jean translates it for me later. The storytelling deepens our connections to Bolivia as he recounts his participation and leading of the 2011 nation-wide march against the government’s decision to allow a highway from Brazil to Peru, crossing the now famous TIPNIS national park. The march gathered representatives from many indigenous tribes across the country for the 65 days walk to La Paz. As this community grew, the government feared for its political survival and initiated a crackdown. They were beaten, arrested and the leaders temporarily deported – all this from Bolivia’s supposedly pro-indigenous government. Our friend endured both physical and emotional hardship, but he has written part of Bolivia’s history. The army was ordered to violently repress any intention to continue marching but fortunately the local commander refused. In front of mounting local and international pressure the marchers were finally allowed to finish their journey to La Paz where thousands of supporters welcomed them. Several days of negotiation followed, directly with president Evo Morales, and an agreement was found. However, according to our narrator it was never upheld. Ironically, our friend who risked his life to ensure the protection of the environment and their people surprised us by carelessly throwing his rubbish out the car window into the jungle… we contemplated humans and their contradictions…
Eventually we arrive in La Inmaculada Concepción where we settle into a charming, family run hotel with breezy, calming inner courtyard gardens, hammocks and lounges. While Jean and his colleagues attend meetings I gently wander this friendly, quiet village that is surrounded by cattle and agricultural land. This Jesuit mission town houses the Musical Archives where sheets of baroque music that were brought to the Americas by Jesuit priests are preserved. The indigenous population that lives here has participated in taking great care of this precious ages-old archive and every second year Concepción and the other mission towns host an International Baroque Music Festival in which orchestras and choirs from all over the world participate. The elaborately restored 1709 Catedral de Concepción commands attention, overlooking the peaceful, central plaza and boasting 121 huge skilfully carved tree-trunk columns, buttresses and a bell tower. Its baroque designs depict flowers, angels and the Holy Virgin in natural pigment painting. Inside, it is colourfully and intricately decorated, with multiple altars. The Museo Misional displays documents preserved since the 16th and 17th centuries, photos of some of the churches along the mission circuit, and wooden, woven and leather handcrafts.
We eat lunch in another courtyard, a restaurant full of life, with a talkative parrot and lots of laughter. I can’t remember when I last laughed so much and I wonder why.
We banter with some children. We visit some handcraft stores. I accept a gift from Jean – it’s a simple necklace of twine with a seed and some feathers. He has bought it from an elderly woman whose first contact with people outside her tribe was just 30 years ago. I ponder her life experience. I take the time to breathe in the history and peace of this place in the middle of the jungle.
The red soil of the road meeting the lush green of the jungle characterises our journey to San Ignacio de Velasco. I notice the latest shoots and fastest growing plants as their clean, bright green leaves stand out against the dusty foliage. As darkness falls we are passed by large trucks and swallowed by clouds of red earth. We have to drive carefully to make our way through it. The sunset is magnificent. The stars are numerous and worth contemplating. The company is friendly and light hearted – again, I haven’t laughed so much in such a long time and it feels healing. We frequently slow to avoid donkeys and cows standing on the road, unphased by our bright lights. I feel privileged to be there.
In San Ignacio de Velasco I am fortunate to be invited on a tour of Minga Cooperative’s site where they apply a more holistic approach to coffee and almond production. Finding the balance between expanding and paying their producers in cash is difficult. To help, they give producers additional coffee plants that are raised on site. They also grow moringa, cherimoya, banana, almond, cashew, acerola cherry, papaya and various nitrogen fixing trees. I discover the uruku tree – the seeds are used as a natural red food dye. This productive area was once bare compacted earth from years of heavy machinery but now it is fertile, complete with a worm farm that they harvest castings from to give to the coffee producers. They lead by example and I am impressed. I felt so excited to see this sort of work happening. I wanted to know more and they willingly shared. They have also recently built raised beds to grow stevia and have installed a large dehydrator to process it.
They demonstrate the coffee production process, from harvesting to selling. If the beans are left too long on the tree they become too dry. Ideally they are harvested green, with 12% humidity. They know when they are ready through experience – when biting into the bean it should break, but they have a device to check and in the humid climate it frequently needs to be dried in a machine anyway. The skins are removed and used as mulch. I am happy to see it isn’t wasted. The beans are then roasted for 40 minutes, sorted by size and weight and packaged. The smells are delicious. I breathe deeply and feel my belly expand and enjoy the aroma. We couldn’t leave without purchasing some of their coffee and almonds. I’m sure we’ll reminisce about this experience as we enjoy them later, back in La Paz.
After an early morning unsuccessful search for fuel we find an elderly man who sells us some from softdrink bottles and we finally make our way to San José de Chiquitos. There, I avoid the heat by strolling around the Mission church and its beautiful galleries of wall paintings while Jean and his colleagues attend meetings. I then join them to learn about one of their current partners, the escuela taller, which is a technical school where teenagers and young adults can learn a craft such as carpentry, masonry, painting, archaeology and textiles – combining the traditional, regional methods with modern techniques. The beauty of this concept is that these schools have been founded in various places throughout Latin America, always near a UNESCO world heritage site, enabling graduates the opportunity to generate income whilst restoring historic sites. In addition, the students take lessons in using computers, speaking English and sexual education. Most students travel from the surrounding towns and receive a scholarship from their municipality. This is a unique opportunity for rural children with few prospects to reconnect with their history and crafts.
After a satisfying Brazilian buffet lunch we make our way back to Santa Cruz where we spend a day before Jean and I take a romantic long weekend together to Samaipata, a well-known gringo destination thanks to its mystical pre-Inca site El Fuerte, the lush surroundings, mild climate, bohemian feel and of course, where Ché Guevara found his death. I enjoy the 3 hour journey. It is mandarin season, evident by the overfilled baskets and orange pyramids congregating along the roadside. Dogs, chickens and pigs scavenge and play, knowing not to cross over the dangerous boundary from dirt to bitumen.
We take the opportunity to stay at a permaculture farm called La Finca Vispera. It is run by a Dutch couple, Pieter and Marga, who arrived 30 years ago and are now in their 60s. We felt at home wandering the food terraces that guests are free to harvest from, playing with their dogs, absorbing Pieter’s passion for Bach as he plays piano, exploring the natural buildings and herb shop and generally enjoying the 6 hectares of food production and wilderness. Long discussions with delicious, organic food and coffee inspired me. Marga is peacefully confident and encouraging as she answers our many questions while Pieter interjects playfully with jokes. They meditate, play music and create. They have been in love for 40 years. I enjoy meeting couples who last, who do things together, rediscovering their love over and over. I ask them for their secret – there isn’t one, Pieter says, simply surrender. This site is their playground, an extension of themselves where they are living ‘the good life’. This is not an idealistic community, but rather a project that has grown organically from the simple desire to live sustainably into an ecological business that now supplies lodging, a campsite, horse riding, herbal products, organic produce to the Santa Cruz market, employs 10 local staff, takes volunteers and promotes knowledge sharing. They see themselves as the guardians of the land despite being the owners and welcome others who wish to join their vision – we were humbled to be invited to stay. I am tempted…
While we are at La Finca Vispera we meet Ryan, a Californian who is travelling with his Brazilian partner, Letícia, in a cheerful campervan around Central and South America documenting sustainable communities, eco-villages and permaculture centers on www.comuntierra.org. They have already been on the road for 3 years and imagine another 2 ahead of them to finish this project that they constantly fundraise for. They have an impressive set up. Ryan is softly and carefully spoken, a good listener with a lot of wisdom for a 25 year old. We feel instant acceptance and harmony in his company as he introduces us to his lifestyle and home. I feel my heart flutter as I dream of such a life. I see they share many of our interests. They have sprouts on the sink and kombucha brewing on top of their bicycle-washing machine-blender. He shares some of their water kefir grains with us which makes my heart jump with excitement and gratitude. Their dry toilet contributes to the compost at communities they visit; they have solar panels and even a water filter for their 19L tank. Their small home doubles as a music and art studio – more interests we share. I don’t want to leave. I wish I could join them also…
We stay in Samaipata old town after that, wandering through the village hand in hand, receiving massages and enjoying just being together. Good food, warm days, cool nights. One night, while we are walking to the main square, we both look up at the night sky and take it in with wonder. So many shining stars, galaxies and even the darkness reminding us of how simultaneously small yet grand we are. I’m happy I get to walk this earth with Jean and I imagine what we’ll be like in 35 years’ time…
We hurriedly visit El Fuerte the morning of our departure. This important archaeological site was called ‘The Fortress’ by the Spanish who used it as such. We admire the monolithic sandstones that have been carved and decorated by various peoples from the pre-Columbian era. What does it all mean? Undoubtedly, the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic images, geometric patterns, niches, channelling system, vessels, solar calendar, engineering and architecture expertise are full of intention, skill, magic and religious significance. We think about what Jean’s mum would add to the experience with her knowledge, history and passion for ancient cultures.
We leave Samaipata with sadness in our hearts. I want to stay in the warmth and humidity, surrounded by green and abundance. I nestle into Jean for the trip back to Santa Cruz and I fall asleep listening to joyful tunes, content in my place in his arms. Our trip is over and we are returning to La Paz…