Wet Carnival in Sorata
Against all odds, at the beginning of 2012 I found myself still in La Paz. That meant carnival time, and a wet one for that. This rainy season is turning out as being the epitome of its kind, with overflowing rivers rushing from the Altiplano into the lowlands, through La Paz. If the rain continues, the lowlands will soon flood. Meanwhile, I was wet and cold.
On Sunday, February 19, the Carnival began; its different stages would last until next Sunday. The largest parades would take place on Tuesday 21 and Sunday 26. Except for the ultra-organized and repetitive parades I described in the past, this is a quite wild affair, with the streets getting more violent than usual. Having no intentions participating again, and suffering of the eternal altitude cold, I decided to descend to Sorata.
Just north of La Paz, the Andean High Plateau breaks into the Upper Amazonian Basin. The transition territory offers magnificent views to the visitor. The Bolivian Shangri-La, Sorata, is considered to be a top tourism destination in Bolivia, and a bastion of isolationist pretensions. One of the strangest incidents in its history happened in 1781, when the village was put under siege by the nephew of Tupac Amaru. He constructed dikes above the town and then washed the town away. Invariably, Bolivians mention Sorata as one of the most beautiful places in their country. They compare it to a mythical Shangri-La, placed in a narrow, faraway—almost lost—valley among the most beautiful mountains. They will describe a difficult trip to a remote, a magical place at the feet of the Mount Illampu, an Eden, and then will lament their inability to travel there. (Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem to be published in March 2012)
Early in the morning, I approached the Sorata terminus near the General Cemetery of La Paz and shopped around for a ticket among several companies. In Bolivia, transport prices can change with the demand; thus, it is essential to find out what current fares are.
"It costs 20BOB," (roughly 3 American dollars) the vendor said to the man ahead of me. The regular price was 17BOB. I knew that, and the man being told that knew that.
"Yesterday it was 25!" the vendor added, seeing the reluctance of the man. Yet, I knew the price was fair, during holidays prices invariably raise. The man left the desk, and I bought a ticket on the front seat, next to the window. February is pretty much the end of the rainy season, and that meant the Altiplano would be unusually green and Sorata gloriously green. I planned on taking pictures.
"Come back at 9!" the vendor said, dispatching me to the cold street.
Knowing Bolivians treat time as if it was a leper dog, I stayed nearby, watching the vehicle that was about to take me to Shangri-La. At 8:40, the driver shouted: "We are leaving." I was surprised since the rushing passengers filled less than half of the spacious backside. Yet, we left.
Minutes later, we stopped in La Ceja, the contact point between the cities of La Paz and El Alto and where La Paz touches the plateau. There we stopped for about twenty minutes until the driver convinced enough people to board the minivan. In between, he fixed the electric system of the car, which refused to start. Seeing the wide variety of his skills, I felt reassured.
Soon we got stuck on the streets of El Alto. Its few avenues do not allow traffic to flow freely. It took us an hour to cross this relatively small city, but eventually we were on the open plateau, rushing towards the Titicaca Lake. Along this way, the road follows the Cordillera Real range of the Andes; however, in the rainy season the mountains are almost always covered by a thick layer of clouds. Whiffs of snow covered the plateau’s higher slopes (the "plateau" is not flat, it undulates gently). After a while, we reached the town of Huarina. From there, we took the road northwards, toward Mount Illampu and away from Copacabana and the lake. Yet, even this secondary road offers a few lovely views of the wondrous pond. Soon, we reached Achacachi, one of the main towns in the area and where the road begins to surround Mount Illampu. From there, it looks as if the road goes directly to the Illampu’s summit, and it is nearly so. After the village of Warisata—where early in the 20th century the Aymara revival movement began—we began descending into the Sorata Valley. The sun was gone. Heavy fog surrounded us. The driver slowed down.
After a while, it began drizzling. The cliffs surrounding us were literally covered with a thin layer of flowing water. Everything was gloriously green, but also dangerously grey and slippery. Would we reach Sorata?
Almost four hours after having began the trip—it usually takes just three hours—we crossed the first of the two bridges in the vicinity of Sorata. Something looked wrong. There were vehicles parked on the roadside. That was strange, despite the area being populated; tiny villages occupy almost every suitable spot. The closer we were to the second bridge, the more parked vehicles could be seen. Then the bridge appeared, and I relaxed: it was still there. Yet, the last few hundred meters to the bridge were blocked by a long line of vehicles. The driver passed to the other lane, and bypassed all other vehicles, until it stopped near the bridge. Then, he said to the passengers: "That’s it; I can’t continue!"
I left the vehicle and took a more careful look. Part of the adjacent mountain had collapsed and had destroyed the road accessing the bridge. Bulldozers were clearing the debris, but regular cars couldn’t cross what looked like a Bolivian chairo soup. In the cold weather of the Andean High Plateau, thick soups are a staple. In chairo, chuño dehydrated potatoes are broken into small pieces and boiled for a while. The result gives the soup its dark color and muddy texture. Other ingredients dilute the bitter taste of the chuño. Corn, carrots, and beans, can be spotted occasionally in the thick blend. Spices seem to have little effect on the thick liquid; the soup is dominated by chuño and lamb meat. The ground below my feet resembled the soup, but it was cold.
Carefully walking through the icy soup I approached the bridge walking. I knew the town was just about twenty minutes by foot and that the road there was exquisitely beautiful. Yet, swimming the way there was not an option I contemplated. A truck was waiting near the road. Four men were standing in its backside, which was void of seats or roof.
"Jump in; I’ll take you to Sorata," the driver said.
I climbed, placing myself near one of the back corners. I knew the road passed through several cliffs. The roads in the Sorata area resemble those of theDeath Road, thus being careful was essential. If the truck was to approach a cliff too much, or would begin slipping on the mud towards one, I wanted to be able to jump out. Few survive falls through the cliffs.
I was in, but the car didn’t move. The backside looked pretty full to me, but not so to the driver. He waited until there were fifteen people standing there. These included several large packages, and at least two bulky passengers. At the last moment, a couple arrived with a large box containing a brand new, large television screen. Luckily, it was of the flat type. They also were welcomed, and I found myself almost standing on the TV. The owners of the contraption didn’t seem to care. Minutes later, we were in Sorata.
I jumped out, paid the exorbitant fee demanded by the driver, took my small camera out and began surrounding the central plaza. I needed to stretch out my legs a bit before having lunch. A high-pitched noise pierced my ears; I ignored it. Then it did so again. I looked around and saw a ten-year old child with a foam can in his hand aiming it at me. Then he made that noise again. It was my name, but distorted in the way Spanish-speakers like. That was impossible. Nobody knows me there. Next to the child an adult man was standing smiling at me. I didn’t know him. In Bolivia, such events are violence precursors. Somebody had followed me from La Paz, slowly, without taking my eyes off the odd couple; I walked backwards into the plaza and then, disappeared into the crowd.