- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.