Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Story of Two Photos

The road out from Turco was unpaved, just like the road to Turco, but the ride went quickly, the white peaks of the Nevados de Quimsachata bulging bigger against the white sky.

Chachacomani is one of those pueblos that disappears into the mountains behind, so it wasn't till we got within half a km that I saw it, even with the line of sickly electrical poles running out of it, down the Altiplano and to the horizon.

I was pretty nervous. This was our first "site visit," the first time we'd left the Energética offices in Cochabamba and gone "into the campo" to see what it was this organization was up to. We'd been in the car for something like 12 of the last 24 hours, conversing with Don Fredy and trying not to expose just how shitty our Spanish was. After a night in an Oruro hotel, we'd driven on to Turco, dropped our stuff in a cold mud-brick room, and continued west on the road past Sajama to this tiny pueblo 5km from the Chilean border. I felt lost.

We were supposed to be "documenting." Doing photos and interviews about the energy situation in rural Bolivia. I don't think Don Fredy knew what to make of it. He didn't offer help. He was busy trying to collect the community leaders and get some feedback on how the new power lines were working and what their current needs looked like.

Care and I slid out of the Land Cruiser. We looked at our feet. Nothing seemed to be happening. We kind of zigzagged, in that time-killing kind of way, down a grass-covered lane. In about 100 meters the pueblito ended. Nothing by shrubs, garbage, and llamas out there. We photoed the llamas. They got nervous and jogged away, up the first slopes of the Nevados de Quimsachata.

Back at the "main plaza," people were gathering. There were some chicos with heavy metal t-shirts and nice-looking bikes, showboating, hopping curbs and big rocks. Some cholas were sitting on the curb in front of the church, each with a dozen skirts and a bowler cap. They were drop-spindling llama wool.

Non-Bolivians with cameras are drawn to cholas. I slipped over to them, trying to find an opening in their quiet Aymar-llano. I went for it, said hello, explained what the hell I was doing in their nice little village by the mountains. "Puedo sacar una foto de Uds.?" There was a short comprehension lag, and then a forceful shaking of heads. Nobody moved. One of the younger ones smiled because of the tension. The others waited for me to leave.

I walked back to the car. "That's a no," I said to Carey. I turned around and snapped a photo of the huddle, from the outside.

The whole thing, our project, looked like it was going to tank. Don Fredy had better things to do than give us a proper introduction. Everyone was ignoring us. We walked off in the other direction, thinking we'd better find some more llamas to photo.

Chachacomani was bigger down the hill. There was a school, a health clinic, a two-story brick building.

We got to the other end. There were no more llamas, just the flat, brownish Altiplano spilling out like a flood to the east. We kept walking along the "main road," the one we'd driven up to get into town. North of us, Sajama's pyramidal bulk hid behind a sheet of blowing snow.

By the road, an old man in a green sweatshirt was mortaring together a small cubic structure. He looked at us and smiled.

"I'm gonna try," I said. I went over and gave him my spiel. "Energética," "voluntario," energía," "entrevista." He kept smiling, then nodded his head.

His name was Pedro Apaza Mamani. He'd come to Chachacomani 3 years ago looking for work, and now he was stacking together this outhouse by the road. He answered all of my questions, speaking into the dinky Olympus digital recorder, while Carey stood back and photoed. When I played it back a week later in Cochabamba, his voice was almost washed out by the wind. He said he was thrilled to have electricity in his home, even if it only powered a 25-watt light bulb. That was our first interview.

When we got back to the plaza, the Land Cruiser was packing up. Time to go, on to Campo Grande as the sun set, which is where the picture in the previous post was taken. Campo Grande means Big Country.


julie said...

Hal- I loved this, especially the line "Non-Bolivians with cameras are drawn to cholas."

Is Pedro sporting a cap embroidered with Che??

hal said...

Thanks Julie.

I hadn't remembered that detail, but looking at the photo, I think you're right. This is so common in the region I probably didn't even notice.

Kathy Amen said...

You guys are such brave souls. I have trouble trying to speak another language in an urban setting where I'm pretty sure everyone would understand English anyway.

Lauren Quinn said...

Dude, seriously killer opening. Sets the tone, captures the scene, beautiful! I also love "Nothing seemed to be happening." Rad, rad work.

hal said...

Much appreciated, Lauren.

geotraveler said...

Loved this post. It's amazing how much we take for granted sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Somehow I missed the info about your mission there. What it because I couldn't keep my mouth shut?

It must be so exciting to see change having a effect in people's lives. Hope to read more from you about this project.

hal said...

@Kate: No, I always struggle to explain it coherently in person. But the more distance I get from it, the weightier it becomes in my mind. Actually, that sums up Bolivia for me.