I’m riding through the mountains from Oruro back to Cochabamba. It’s my fifth day in a row traveling and the third of this trip. Sunday Shay and I left the jungles of Chapare, on Monday I rode up into the snowy mountains as far as the road was good, and then we left for the deserts and grasslands on Tuesday. Freddy’s driving, Renan is riding shotgun, and Marcela is smoking a cigarette out the window while we pass through a toll booth. I feel bad that I’m sitting here on a laptop while an old man just begged at our window for a piece of bread. The road we’re on has chosen one of the ridge lines to traverse and at either side of me are abysses followed by folds of a green, brown and red mix of bushy pajabraba and sharp, exposed rocks. Llamas and cholas (country women always adorned with skirts, a colorful blanket about the shoulders, and a bowler hat) roam among the hills barely seen from the distance. We are traveling through one of the many faces of Bolivia.
We’ve come to Oruro so that I can make a documentary for Energetica, a renewable energy NGO. Freddy and Ruben are engineers sent to all parts of Bolivia to install solar panels to bring electricity to the 70% of Bolivians who live without it. Tomorrow is Energetica’s 20th anniversary. In that time they’ve brought light to around 15,000 families. Their projects vary from domestic panels to computer centers and they work with the municipal, provincial, and national governments, along with foreign universities and the EU to help fund these projects.
Marcela has lost the remote control for the radio again. Along with being Energetica’s communication director and helping me with everything I need to do, she’s a DJ for a classical radio station. Therefore, in the back seat, she has unequivocally gained the power to change the song when one of Fredy’s numerous sappy Spanish love songs or Bolivian bands praising Santa Cruz comes on. I had my thumb-drive in but after listening to Calle 13 twice through and subjecting the group to half of the complete Floater collection we put Freddy’s back in. And Marcela skips every other song after ten seconds of intro. So we’ve been traveling for three days. But at least now we’re on a paved road.
Pavement is such a luxury. Yesterday we spent 25km on asphalt and 8 hours on mud. We left Cochabamba on the back roads too; the government has raised the price of the Taxi Trufis (public vans with set routes that you merely have to wave down and hop on) from 1.50 Bolivianos to 2 Bolivianos and so there’s been protests and massive road blockages. After meandering through some farmlands we found the main road to Oruro and stopped by a school where Energetica has installed a solar panel. It hasn’t been working, though, and without their newly-acquired TV the attendance rates have dropped. Freddy walked in and flipped a switch and somehow fixed the power. That’s one of the problems with these development projects: in any state of disrepair the whole system is doomed to deteriorate. After Energetica’s three year maintenance guarantee I doubt that these people will be able to afford any repairs, and the smallest problem is as good as throwing the solar panel into the ravine next to the school because they also have no idea how any of it works.
Freddy plugged in the TV and all the kids came and started watching “Spirit” with the director’s commentary on for their subtitles. In this community of a dozen mining families on a hillside next to the road the children grow up speaking Aymara and learn Spanish in school. More than anything, they are simply marveled by the cartoon horse running along the plains. I interview the teacher and she tells me the kids learn much better visually and they have math and health shows for the kids, and watching movies they can learn Spanish better. I also talked to a miner who goes to night school here now that they have light. He’s 67 and has worked in the mine all his life and now is learning math. I interviewed a Chola woman of 19 who also is going to school. She takes care of her three kids during the day and had just started night school when the switch went off-kilter.
We left after a home-cooked meal of rice an’ egg and headed for Oruro, the city of Carnaval. As usual I have no idea of what’s going on and we stopped at the municipality and I sat in on a meeting in which Freddy and Renan were negotiating who would pay for what and what Energetica could provide in another round of solar installs. We went to a lamb restaurant where I was spared from eating the head because I didn’t bring my camera to document it. Tomorrow would be the long day. Apparently we’re driving to Chile.
It rained that night and so our trip was endless. I was stuck in the middle as we had picked up Hermán, who lives near the area we were heading to. After a breakfast of empanadas and Apí – a sweet, warm corn drink – we drove by the flamingoes on Lake Oruro and left the pavement. Several times Freddy got out to test the mud. There is a road, but it’s not completed, and so there are signs directing traffic to swerve off the road here into a riverbed, and to go around a pile of gravel there onto the dirt road. And Freddy’s music is… pervasive. All I can do is watch the endless flatness.
It’s not until 4pm that we arrive at the village where I’m to film. Village is an overstatement: it’s a small grouping of stone shacks in the middle of endless shrubs. It’s the shruburbs. They have 100 llamas per family and a solar panel-powered well for potable water and for a trough for the llamas. We have to drive over bushes and risk it through puddles, and the houses appear out of nowhere, lost against the limitless background. The next hill is Chile. We get out and nobody’s around, so I take shots of the panels and the houses and Freddy and Renan explain how the system works until a corpse of a woman comes out and we talk to her. Every question I ask Marcela has to repeat louder in answer to her “HUH?” She’s 74 and has thought about leaving soon. “Where would you go Doña Justina?” Renan asks. “Al cielo.”
Some kids come out and we have them turn on the water and run their hands through it. The llamas are out to eat pajabraba so I don’t get a shot of them drinking the water, but as we leave we stop by a herd and I film them eating as a lightening storm starts of in the distance. It looks like the llamas are eating the hats of buried gnomes, so are the pajabraba. I try to interview another woman but it starts to hail. We go inside one house, but the tin roof is way too loud so we go into one with a thatched roof and it smells terrible; it’s where they dry the llama skins and store the Charque, or llama jerky, and the crying baby at her breast and her less-than-one-word answers make the whole mess a stinky futility.
Rain was our greatest fear since we didn’t want to get stuck out here overnight as the roads are Margaret Hamilton. But we luck out and drive over dry land with a view to all angles of lightening storms on the horizon. And my thumb-drive’s back in and “Bad Moon Rising” seems fitting.
Today we had a short trip to another small town with a solar panel pump. They used to have to walk 2 hours (3 if they sent their abuelita) to get water. Freddy and I climb the tower and can see for miles llamas, a soccer field, and clouds.
We look over Bolivia.
I had no idea where we were going, a slight idea of the projects, and as always just film an unmoving object from several angles and ask questions like pulling teeth from timid interviewees, but I can say it has been a successful trip.
Oh thanks be to God. Freddy has Abbey Road. We are stopped to eat some bread and several 2,3 and 4 year-old girls shove a mint-smelling herb in Renán’s face through the window and he negotiates with them for several minutes while we’re stopped. “Bueno, te pago 1.5Bs como un loco. ¿Te alegra?” (Fine, I’ll pay you $.21 like a crazy man. You happy?) The girl walks away smiling, and we head down the mountain towards Cochabamba, me translating Jorge Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”