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Mizque - World of Contradictions

By: Rose-Marie Lohnes, Bridgewater, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

This is a rather long story to describe a short trip. I landed in Cochabamba, at 2000 meters elevation, on my way to a job posting in Mizque, Bolivia, in October of 1996. Ten years later, not much will have changed.

My Spanish was rudimentary, my Quechua restricted to a basic greeting, numbers and colors. I had booked a front seat on the bus to Mizque and assumed I would have one. I did. Except someone had piled all their earthly belongings, literally, in my seat before I arrived.

I moved the cloth bound goods and sat by the window. My husband occupied the aisle seat. We were two of the forty-five passengers who had assigned seating. Fifteen more people, who could only afford half the fee for the five-hour trip, stood. Rather, they squatted in the aisles, or perched on the arm of the nearest seat. A group of teenagers clambered up on the roof with the luggage and the animals, heedless of danger or weather.

A gentleman of indeterminate age sat on the arm of our seat. He was chewing coca leaves which lessens the effects of altitude sickness and kills hunger pangs. He needed the coca for both reasons. He had obviously never been in close contact with a foreign woman before. He sat and stared at me for the entire journey, green sputum dripping from his chin onto my husband' s shoulder. In our culture this would have been intolerable. We were intruding on their lives and would have to accept the cultural differences.

A young woman sat on the housing facing us. I am prone to motion sickness and had taken Gravol in preparation for the trip. This young woman, with the same affliction, had no such cure available. I recognized the symptoms of motion sickness before the contents of her stomach erupted. She placed a cloth over her mouth, waited until the wave of nausea had passed, and then stuffed the cloth under her feet to be washed later. She could not afford to throw it away.
If you have ever seen the movie, Romancing the Stone, we were the foreign couple in the front seat. The driver of the decades old bus, rolling along on bare tires and dealing with steering gear held together with wire, manoeuvred the hairpin curves and the variations in altitude with skills that garnered respect from my husband who was a bus driver himself. I glanced down at clouds, then tree tops, then bottomless ravines and offered to make a deal with my higher power.

A small tape recorder blared loud music that was repeated incessantly throughout the trip. The driver only had one tape.

As the bus left the hard-surfaced road from Arani, we climbed in a zigzag fashion up and down endless mountains with no respite from the dust and the heat. The landscape was both barren and majestic- vast in its barrenness and impressive in its diversity.

Since there had been recent rain in the mountains, the landscape was lush with what I learned was instant and fleeting vegetation. The steep gardens of varied colorations created a patchwork quilt effect. Moraine from glaciers had left huge patches of colored stones that resembled prehistoric animals. Folded foothills had created what were referred to as sleeping elephants, their trunks reaching out like pathways into the nearby valleys. We watched for this landmark on every trip we made over the next two years.

Giant cacti that tore at human flesh when people harvested their delicious fruit were plentiful. Not much else grew on a regular basis. One such plant, an agave cactus, catches fire from internal combustion once every hundred years. We saw the aftermath of such a phenomenon and had wondered why anyone would set such a plant on fire.

Adobe huts dotted the fabric of the landscape, some kilometres apart, others huddled into small villages sponsored by well-meaning NGOs. People who lived in villages had to walk long distances to their gardens or grazing grounds, surviving by wit and wisdom in the mountains for weeks at a time. They slept outside rolled in hand-woven blankets with the sky as their only roof and no protection from the frost that formed at this altitude. I expect they chewed a lot of coca. Most people had no shoes. We saw many sandals made from the rubber of discarded tires and tied on with yarn someone had spun, carded and braided.

At one point, as the bus crawled up a steep mountainside, everything suddenly went silent.

Everyone crossed themselves. There on the rock face were small indented niches filled with crosses, flowers, and names carved in a common stone. They were the victims of a bus accident that occurred two years before we arrived. It was a sobering silence.

Everywhere, there was evidence of the resilience of these poverty-stricken people. The Quechuans are Nomadic. Thousands of years of grazing animals had left most of the landscape treeless. Cutting down any tree was now a criminal offence. People dug up roots to make a fire to cook their sparse crops of beans and potatoes. Living hand-to-mouth took on a new meaning for me. Quechuans did not live form paycheque to paycheque, they lived on what they could find to eat on that particular day. Often, a small piece of bread or a potato the size of a golf ball, was their only sustenance for the day.

I will always be able to close my eyes and picture the Quechuan women and children bent over their hoes, or see little girls herding huge flocks of sheep and goats over the edges of ravines, leaping out of the path of the bus. The singing of the rope they twirled over their heads had an eerie quality- not associated with music at all.

The thatched adobe homes that looked so quaint in travel magazines now made me shiver. I dreaded the thought that I might have to sleep on the mud floor surrounded by animals and bugs, with the ability to inflict lethal bites, if we had a breakdown after sunset.

Small “chicerias” (local pubs) and places to buy bread were advertised by placing a cloth over a chair. Red cloths indicated you could buy home-made corn liquor; a while cloth was the equivalent of our sign for a bread shop. I did not try the chicha; I had heard too many stories of how it was made. The bread came from huge outdoor bake ovens and remembering it still acts like foreplay on my salivary glands.

Half way to Mizque, the bus stopped for a “bathroom break ”- except there was no toilet. As a white foreigner I was probably the topic of some choice comments. You will see why. I watched as everyone disembarked. All the men went in front of the bus and did what was necessary. All the women went behind the bus, lifted their voluminous skirts, and squatted. I was wearing jeans. (Yes, I can hear you laughing...) I was a special person on the bus, not that I wanted to be. I recalled a similar practice when we spent all day weeding on the interval in Pinehurst or chopping the winter' s wood. Needs must.

During another trip, a truckload of men passed us, and with no place to hide on a road with no vegetation, I just closed my eyes. like a two-year-old who thinks that if s/he can' t see you that they are actually hidden. My husband watched the men. As they drove by me, they all turned their heads so they couldn' t see me. I was touched by such a gesture of respect for privacy.

Guilt and helplessness became my constant companion on this journey. I knew that I did not have the skills to help villagers dig much-needed wells so their children would not die from contaminated water once they could no longer be breast fed. I knew I did not have sufficient money to provide seeds for whole villages when their crops failed. I also discovered to my chagrin that some of my customs, adopted by young women, would make them ineligible to be married. Children are their wealth; needed to work the fields and gardens and for security in their old age. I had only two so I set a bad example. Women are owned by men and saying no to a man in any circumstances often resulted in a beating. I would not have done well as a woman in a remote village.

I only ever suffered from homesickness in Bolivia. The homesickness came when I began to see my mother' s face in those of the women who labored so hard in a harsh land and who watched their children die for lack of clean water. They were the faces of my own children. Waves of helplessness washed over me when I discovered that children were not named until their third birthday. One in every four children dies before the age of five. The mother nurses the first child. When the second child arrives, she nurses two. When the third child arrives, the first child can no longer be breast fed, so it is forced to drink contaminated water- the only water available. Really strong, healthy children survive- and are named at a special celebration- others succumb.

You may be asking yourself why no one thinks to boil water. Often there is none available. When water is in abundance from a river, there is no fuel to boil it. Poor people cannot afford even small gas burners. Families do not have the money to purchase something as simple as salt and sugar to add to boiled water as a treatment for dehydration from dysentery. There are no hospitals and few roads.

This story is a personal journey into a land that seemed unforgiving in its harshness. However, I was humbled by the people who lived there. Quechuans are resourceful and quick to learn. They were accepting of me and my strange ways- and unbelievably good natured in the most horrendous circumstances.

Should you visit Mizque? Only if you want to be changed- forever. Go in the dry season. Stop at the cheese farm at the edge of town. Buy bread. Carry drinking water and toilet tissue, a sandwich if you are not into sheep' s head soup served at the local “Confiteria” (small café), Imodium and a sense of humor.

Enjoy the silence in the mountains - a silence so profound you can hear animals munching grass. The cerulean blue sky feels close enough to touch. No lights mar your view of the celestial wonders at night. Take pictures only if you have asked permission first. Accept and enjoy.

When I arrived in Mizque to live my throat felt tight and dry, but not just from the dust. On my last walk through Mizque, I did not see the dust. Instead, I saw the value in a public square where people gathered after a day' s toil, the flowers that managed to survive the harsh climate, the children who made skipping ropes from vines. I understood why women stood close when they spoke, used drop-style knitting spindles while they walked along a dusty road.

On my farewell walk, I passed a woman shelling peanuts. She was sitting on her doorstep taking advantage of the one outside light on the street. Behind her, the mud floor of her home was clean-swept . Folded, hand-woven blankets waited for bodies to unroll them for a night' s sleep in preparation for whatever the next day would bring. As I paused, she looked at me and smiled faintly. I felt as though she understood that, but for a quirk of fate, she could have been my mother. Perhaps, because the ravages of poverty make it difficult to determine age- I could have been hers.

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