Aimara villages

A street of Achacachi

On Sunday, 21 of August I headed to Achacachi with some fellow volunteers to help the fair and to know a little more about altiplano or highland whose culture is totally different from that of Tarija.  Most of the people living in Achacachi were the people of Aymara, and their main language is Aymara language.  The current president, Evo Morares is of Aymra origin, and his people seem to have gained politically larger voice now.  I was informed that people of highland are more closed and do not mix much with outsiders.  It was not a case of Achacachi nor Sorata, probably because it is close to La Paz and people are used to foreigners.  Soon after arriving at Achacachi, we went on a street to eat a fish soup for breakfast.  People were nice and friendly, made space for us, and explained about the dish. They spoke Spanish without any difficulty, but used Aimara between them.   

The fair was to be held in the plaza.  When we arrived, several blue tents were already set and local people were selling their products; sweaters and scarves made of alpaca, cloths and handbags of Aguayo, a typical multicolored cloth of altiplano, wooden furniture, etc.  Our friend, whose specialty is textiles, has set up her own textile group in Achacachi, passing on the members her techniques and the way to create a sales net work.  At the opening ceremony she gave an address both in Spanish and Aimara.  I was impressed and remembered fondly of the days I tried to learn some of Quechua, the language of other big ethnic group of Bolivia.  It seemed like a long time ago.  At the back of the plaza, we set up a small place to demonstrate a work of our organization and some Japanese culture like calligraphy and ceramics.  Besides helping calligraphy booth, I walked around the plaza.  All the handwork textiles were beautiful.  I bought an alpaca cape to send my mother on Christmas, and a colorful bag and book cover of Aguayo for me.  Our booth was always crowded with people, and when the event was over, we were all tired but very much satisfied. 


After Achacachi, I headed to Sorata, a village 2 hours away from Achacachi. The guidebook says that the scenery to Sorata is really nice with a range of high mountains. The Mt. Illampu (6362m) is the highest in the area. The bus left sometimes after five thirty, and I could see the pale evening glow. Far away there were pinkish snow-capped mountains with a thin layer of clouds in the middle. I expected to see those mountains come closer and closer. However, after 30 minutes ride, we all were in a thick cloud. There was nothing but white mist outside. Feeling a bit disappointed, I sat back, but soon realized that there was a slight tension in the minibus. Only four passengers were on the bus besides the driver and his wife. All were leaning forward and telling the driver something like “there was a light!”, or “a car is coming”, well, so I imagined since all conversation took place in Aimara. Everyone was watching the front glass which was just white to me, and seemed worried about bumping into something or falling off, but interestingly nobody said to the driver anything like “why don’t you slow down a bit”. It was as if we were on the roller coaster in the cloud and I started to enjoy the moment. I also clung to the front seat as everyone did, after knocking my head against the ceiling. About 2 hours later, the minibus slowed down, and we went into a tiny village.

I got off the bus at the plaza, asked the last bus to La Paz next day, and headed to the hostel which my friend recommended to me. There seemed to be a Sunday fair in Sorata, and lots of people with their products on their back were walking around in yellow lights. I went down the street as told, but soon got lost. Two women whom I asked the direction kindly showed me the way, but there were no light on the road they pointed at. I doubled checked and stepped into the darkness without being able to see anything. I wondered if those Aimara people had better eyes than mine and could see things in the dark. On my back I could hear those two women talking to one another, saying, “She asked where Las Piedras (the name of the hostel) was, right?” “Yes she did!” It was quite a steep narrow road. I went down step by step feeling like Alice in Wonderland. Finally I came close to where exist a gentle light. After several blocks, I found a bright welcoming sign shining in front of a pretty house.
When I went into saying “Buenas Noches”, a woman came out. She was the owner of the hostel, Petra, a German woman who has lived in Sorata for 12 years. After settling in my room, I went down to ask about the place to visit in Sorata. Petra gave me a detailed map of Sorata  Then I got mate tea and sat down on one table, and asked her to accompany me. She made a tea for herself and brought some cookies. We talked what made us come to Bolivia. She asked me about the situation in Japan, especially about the nuclear plant. I told her as much as I knew. Our conversation went to Hiroshima and Chernobyl, and then naturally we started to talk about the environment. She told me that once she tried to collect the plastic bottles, hired a truck, and brought to La Paz to recycle. She had no choice but to quit when the price of the bottles went down, but said that even though now the price has recovered, she did not want to start it. Actually some local women asked her why she didn’t start again, but she wants to wait till the local people will stand up and start on their own.

 I understood that feeling. It was exactly what I wanted. I’ve already started my project in several schools. The schools have adopted the project in their way, not necessarily in a way I intended. However, it is the teachers who must carry on the project in actual setting, and all I can do is to give an advice to improve the situation or to solve the difficulty, or to say more precisely, to think of the better way with them. Now I am hoping to give courses helping teachers to create a project of their own, so that they can start and continue it without any outside help. Continuity is a key word for me since people in Bolivia, in my opinion, tend to see what they have started is something temporal and will finish in a certain period of time. I assume it is because they are getting used to adopt a project initiated by foreign government or NGOs. I don’t think it wrong, but believe that it is definitely much better if teachers or any local people take the initiative in a project and then ask for collaboration of outside institution if necessary. So, I enjoyed our conversation pretty much. I also could not help thinking about what made Petra decide to stay in Bolivia, about some kind of force working internally and externally, allowing people to make a decision to change or follow their course of life.

The next morning when I opened a French window, the mountains were still foggy and seemed mysterious. I went down to have a breakfast and chatted with two Swiss girls who had stayed in Sorata for a week, gone on trekking and were leaving on that day. They told me that until yesterday, the weather was perfectly nice. It was a pity that I did not have that luck, but I decided to look at a good part, as Petra said, it wouldn’t be hot and dusty. Actually I quite like it. About nine, I started to walk to San Pedro, a tiny village where the cave locates. The road was nicely moistened and the air was fresh. It seemed be an only road connecting Sorata with several communities in the mountain, but only a few cars and trucks passed. I also met two or three local people walking, but besides, the road was all for myself. Monday, a day after Sunday market, is a day off to most of the people there. I walked quite happily, singing, and enjoying scenery: a peach blossom, several yellow flowers, cows and goats grazing on a steep slope, terraced fields, canyons and rivers far below.

After two and a half hours, I got to the cave, “Gruta de San Pedro”. An old man was watching me walking up to the entrance. I greeted and watched the mountain beside him for a while. He offered me a guide into the cave. I wondered how much he would charge, but accepted his offer. Soon after going into the cave, I realized it was a really good idea to ask him to accompany, since the cave was quite dark in spite of some lights. I walked hurriedly following his flashlight. It was very hot inside. He explained that the cave is 480m long.  After walking about 5 minutes, we got to the darkness. He sounded a buzzer and the lights were on, and then I could see a small lake ahead of me. Three small boats were tied. We pedaled a boat and went further into the cave. At first I could not see anything in the water. Actually it was bit scary and I imagined some huge creatures might swim underneath. Gradually as I got used to the darkness, I could see some rocks underneath. The water was crystal clear. The guide told me the lake is made of the water from the snow on the mountains and no creatures live in it.

Getting out of the cave, I said good-bye to the guide, and went down a hill to find some food. A small shop in front of the cave which seemed to be closed when I came was open and a young woman came out with her little daughter. I asked for a sandwich. A little girl was gazing at me while I settled myself down on a small table outside. I asked her name and how old she was. She showed her light blue cardigan, and told me she did not go to the kindergarten because she had a cold. I made a crane out of a small paper I had in a purse. She went into the shop to show it to her mother. A woman came out with a nice big sandwich. It was delicious. I started to chat with a woman. She was shy, but opened up after knowing we were almost the same age, asked me where I’m from, what I am doing in Bolivia, etc, and told me that she was divorced and now lived with her father who owned the land there. Meanwhile I bought some sweets and shared some with a girl. We talked about Sorata and Tarija and their similarities. Both towns locate in “valle”, more or less on the same altitude (Sorata 2639m, Tarija 1835m), though Sorata is more humid and greenish than Tarija. Both are comfortable to live in. She showed me the trees of grapes, peaches, and bananas besides the shop and those of chirimoyas down on the hill. When I got up, she went into her house, and gave me two chirimoyas. We hugged each other. I could see them waving when I turned back on the corner.

The path back to Sorata went slightly uphill, and it was getting hotter. I was quite tired when a nice taxi driver who shows shiny golden teeth whenever he smiles passed by. He told me that there are mines of gold, copper, aluminum, etc in the mountains near Sorata.  I got off at the plaza, bought some chirimoyas to bring back to Tarija, and then went back to the hostel to pick up my backpack. Petra had gone to La Paz early morning, but a Bolivian family who works with her attended me. We talked over tasty fruits salad. She was listening to the radio carefully, telling me there was a blockade by miners on the way to La Paz. Luckily a blockade was over and miners were gathering at the central plaza. I saw them when I went up to the plaza to catch the bus to La Paz, and wished their negotiation would go well. I sat on the front seat watching Sorata disappearing in the mist. All the people I met in Sorata were kind and friendly, and I liked the village very much. I especially thought of the woman and her little girl who lived in front of the cave and their everyday life. I was with them just a little while, but they gave me a strong impression somehow. I am glad that I take their photo as the last picture of this trip. Unfortunately my camera just went out of battery, and I couldn’t show the picture to them. I hope I can bring the photo to them someday.