Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bolivia--Part 2: Maragua

        It's one of those images that just sticks with you forever, so much so that over time you forget whether it was real or imagined, whether it actually happened or if it is just some colorful fiction crystallized out of a cluster of hazy experiences and unresolved emotions. I guess time will tell and at least I have the photo to remind me and that small piece of cloth tied neatly around my wrist.

        A little ways outside Sucré, Bolivia there is a small rural village called Maragua that sits at the bottom of an enormous crater, once a great lake basin that was half-ripped apart by a volcanic explosion some bunch of millions of years ago. 

        The roads that lead through the mountains to Maragua are terrifying, if also pretty standard as far as the Bolivian highway system is concerned. At times these passes can be surprisingly pedestrian, wide and paved with fresh asphalt, a marvel of both engineering and government investment in national infrastructure. But whatever faith might be gathered from these fine sprawling sections of pavement is more than needed as the quality of roads deteriorates rapidly as distance from the city increases. Inevitably, these roads devolve into glorified cattle paths with only a few forgotten boulders as makeshift guardrails and even then only every few hundred meters.
        It takes a certain amount of courage and the sophomoric effects of the stunning landscape to give one the disposition necessary to take a blind, ninety-degree corner at about sixty kilometers an hour while the driver lays on the horn in an uncomforting (and in my opinion, ineffective) way of announcing its presence to whatever automobile (be it motorcycle, car, or 18-wheeler) may be approaching from the opposite direction. 

        White-knuckle was before the driver looked like he was falling asleep at the wheel; this is knuckling-under, knowing that with each switch of the switchback you take, the shear drop on either side of you only becomes longer, steeper, and fatalistically more absurd. But all of that becomes commonplace after the first week or so in the country. Its better to sleep on the long rides anyway.
        After a few hours spent weaving between peaks and an inevitable number of appeals to any number of deities, the road seems to level out. Small stone cottages begin to appear on the hills and fields tilled in elementary cursive seem to occupy every measly parcel of topsoil that hasn't been washed away into the valleys below. Then, the road becomes straight and is beckoned forward by a waist-high stone wall that leads to a small intersection with another winding path. Eventually, you reach the town center, the strange anachronism of a modern school building in the middle of a cobble-stone and mud-brick village seated at the heart of a great crater and flanked to the east by a great cordillera of red rock. 

        Maragua is gorgeous.

        The most hospitable people I have ever met are campesinos (the Spanish word for rural farmer), but such warmth is not necessarily dolled out to strangers without reserve. Bolivians, in general, tend to be more shy, perhaps a bit more wary, especially compared to their very laid back, tranqillopa Paraguayan neighbors. As we made our way through the town center, I felt that tension—it wasn't uninviting, or somehow malicious, it was just cautious and palpable, like something new that hasn't quite been worked into daily life yet.
        The community of Maragua has, in the past few years, opened its doors to tourism. Not only is the community situated in a breathtaking landscape with a vivid and dramatic geological history visible at every step, but it is also host to one of the world's largest concentration of petrified dinosaur footprints. While tourism could hardly be considered a bustling industry in Maragua, and while most of the control over the business remains in the hands of the local community, the notion of having strangers wander through their home has understandably taken some getting used to.
         Inevitably, as predominantly wealthy, white tourists and backpackers stumble through on their way to the dinosaur footprints, they also take measure of the relative poverty of the community itself and in the process, whether intentionally or unintentionally, make a novelty of the normal lives of the local Maraguans. I stand guilty as charged, although in a desperate bid to save face, I have been living in an impoverished Paraguayan community for the past 2 years. Such is the crux and burden of tourism in developing nations—the opportunity of financial progress at the expense of personal commodification.
        We hiked out from the town center heading west, crossing the entire length of the basin that gives way to the steep sides of the crater. The earth was a collage of volcanic silts and ash, reds-greens-yellows-blues-purples, and consolidated sedimentary rocks holding millions upon millions of fossilized shells and petrified animal remains. It is one of those rare places where you can literally feel the epochs of geological history right under your feet, whether from the surprising fluidity of eroding deposits on the basin floor or from the fact that with each meter of altitude you gain, another chapter of the grand narrative becomes evident. For me, it was like walking in a sort of daze—too much to try and understand, too much beauty to try and appreciate all at once, and too little oxygen in the thin mountain air for me to ever quite fully catch my breath.
        On our hike, we were followed by a small group of school children who were themselves making the five-kilometer trek back home. As we struggled with the loose earth along steep canyon walls, their persistence and dedication became clear. What was for us an almost three-hour round trip that scaled and descended some several hundred meters of altitude was for them simply the return journey from a day at school, a journey they had already made earlier that day to arrive on time for class at seven in the morning.
        The children spoke little Spanish although they seemed to understand enough. They chattered back in forth in rapid-fire, giddy Quechua of which I understand absolutely nothing. I guess our small group of foreigners was still strange enough of a site in Maragua to merit constant monitoring by the local kids and calculated, cautious inspection always undertaken from a safe distance. Still, the kids smiled and laughed at our bumbling antics and our obvious ineptitude across the slopes and terrain over which they skipped like mountain goats without breaking a sweat. One thing I noticed: they were never out of breath.
        On the ridge overlooking the town, the entire primordial story of the Maragua basin is evident: millions of years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption decimated the opposing wall of what was once a tranquil mountain lake allowing the contents to spill out through a deep gorge. All that is left of that event is a small waterfall filled with mountain runoff that tumbles harmlessly down into the same ravine.
        And yet, even after you summit the crater itself and make your way onto the even more vertical topography of the surrounding mountain range, small communities and homesteads continue to dot the landscape, tucked onto small outcrops or at the peaks of intermittent hills.
        It is amazing to think that people survive out here—at 3,500 meters, it is not above the treeline, but nevertheless, trees are scarce and therefore, so is firewood. The temperature when we were there was cold and gets even colder at nights or when winter decides to be particularly harsh. There is an unrelenting wind that blows dry, thin mountain air from almost every direction at once, buffeting any person so that even the noonday sun can do little to shed that constant shiver. And as if that weren't enough, the weather itself can change in an instant—while we hiked, we experience 3 of the 4 seasons I am accustomed to from the US northeast: an overcast fall day, followed by a sunny, cool spring afternoon, and then ending with a mid-winter rain storm where the tiny droplets were whipped horizontally by a biting wind.
        Despite the fact that the beauty and difficulty of it all made a very profound impression on me, it was none of these things—this veritable slide-show of images and vistas that would be more than worthy of a National Geographic cover—that would catch me and hold my mind like the image of that small girl at the craters edge.
        She had come out of her house when she saw us approaching in hopes of selling us a few simple cloth bracelets as we passed by. The house was typical of the region, made of mud-brick with a thatch-grass roof surrounded by a loosely-stacked stone wall. It sat at the bottom of a small hill and seemed to be somewhat carved into the mountain side—maybe this was by design or perhaps it was just time and living that had sunken the foundations deeper into the ground than usual.
        She walked up to me and timidly offered a cardboard roll around which she had fastened a few colorful bracelets. There was no obvious theme to the selection and in fact, none of them were particularly appealing. But it wasn't the bracelets that I noticed anyway, it was her face. It was the wind in those mountains that had already begun to carve her young cheeks and opened great cracks in her lips like crevasses that she hardly seemed to notice. She was smiling, but it was uncertain, and I am sure that whatever it was, there was no salesmanship going on—she wasn't trying for my sympathy or attempting to win my heart with her charm. She was just a young child, sitting in her home when a group of us strangers walked by. But still, even that wasn't what struck me the most.
        She was beautiful. She had one of those faces: unassuming and quiet and yet complex and full like the entire ocean, and you could tell, even at this young age, that one day she would be a strikingly beautiful woman. Here she was, this young girl that will one day hold the power to rip a man's heart open and sew it back together again, living on this small forgotten piece of land just outside a tiny rural farming village in the middle of the Bolivian Andes.
        I bought a bracelet form her for the price of roughly one US dollar.

        Its strange how the mind works: as I flip through the pictures from my trip to Bolivia, I can hardly even believe that I was actually standing in some of those pristine, unearthly places. It defies the regular confines and rules of my otherwise standard memory. And out of all of that, the thing which has preoccupied me the most is that little girl.
        Maybe it was the contrast, the harsh environment and difficult conditions that she faces on a daily basis just to survive juxtaposed with the unexpected weight of her appearance. Maybe it was the fact that the surrounding landscape was so mind-blowing that I just needed something concrete in which to ground the whole experience. Maybe it was sympathy and helplessness; sympathy for having gained a better understanding of what impoverished rural life means for young women and helplessness for having spent two-years working in rural Paraguay only to get out and realize that there is still so much work to be done.
        Or maybe it was just that I saw something beautiful, something among the kaleidoscope of rolling mountains and endless skies that jumped at me and just wouldn't let me go. Perhaps she was just beautiful and that is just that. Whatever the reason, there is now a little Bolivian flag colored bracelet around my wrist that I have no intention of taking off anytime soon.

From Bolivia,
little hupo

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