The 6 a.m. bus ride from the poorer Cemetery District of La Paz to the small mountain town of Charazani (Northwest of Lake Titicaca) seemed interminable, but somehow more tolerable than the one to the salt flats. Maybe we’d just grown thicker skin by then, who knows.

As seen from the bus to Charazani.

As seen from the bus to Charazani.

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To the west, boats sat grounded in fields, surrounded by reeds, presumably to pole through crops during the rainy season when lake levels rise. Drab towns and garbage heaps scavenged by dogs and pigs flashed past in a grey brown blur, and equally drab and denuded rivers sludged their weary way west. In one larger town, Bolivian passengers knowingly got off the bus. They returned with huge sacks of bread, packaged Christmas Panettone (a processed kin of fruitcake) and fried trucha (trout) and rice brunches with an alluring smell. I survived on figs and water that morning, and by the time we had summited several mountains to descend into the charming little mid-slope town of Charazani, I was ready to try eating an entire cow. I was not the only one.

We disentangled ourselves and belongings from the bus, piled them on one side of the town square, and dispatched the two of us Spanish speakers to find lodging. About 20 minutes, two dead ends and two helpful locals later, we returned with a lead on a woman who might rent us rooms and allow our group of seven (including two vegans) use of her kitchen. While we waited for her to materialize, we gravitated towards the woman deep frying chicken and platanos under a tarp across the street. The woman was frying her way through a line of orders, and told us we’d have to wait, but whipped out our orders in minutes, including two orders of just platanos, and we devoured them.

The place we rented had four stories and a Harry Potter-esque set of staircases situated around a square, uninteresting little courtyard. The cramped, dirty, oddly shaped kitchen and a moldy smelling side chamber with a sometimes-functioning refrigerator were on the bottom level. The ground floor had a long hall of a dining room with tables to seat several dozen, and a simply decorated Christmas tree. The upper two levels had decent sized, sparsely furnished rooms with a faintly colonial style, and the top level had a spacious, tiled open air patio facing out over the river canyon snaking by below. The dueña de casa (landlady) was a friendly little woman who had to depart for La Paz the next day to get a sign for her hostel, and wouldn’t be back until after New Year. She didn’t mind handing the keys over to total strangers for a small price, so we set to work cleaning her kitchen to the point where we could use it. Loose bunches of herbs and who-knows-how-old food in bowls, pots and pans littered the counter, stovetop and floor.

Survival diet: Bolivian peanut butter and imported champagne from La Paz.

Survival diet: Bolivian peanut butter and imported champagne from La Paz.

After an intensive kitchen scrub down, we did some shopping around the square to supplement my large grocery run in La Paz, then set out down the road towards the hotsprings by the river. Bolivian elders sat soaking, families socializing and kids splashing and playing. One of us ordered a Bolivian cola as we cycled in and out of the hot jet stream in one corner where the spring was piped into the pool after a steep drop down the hill. We batted a ball around with a gang of kids and tried to understand as a radio blared news about a championship game between Bolivian soccer teams. “Los Tigres Ganan!!!!” one kid yelled at the top of his lungs. The elevation was somewhat lower than La Paz, but the cobbled trail of switchbacks back up the hill after relaxing in hot water made me lightheaded. The scenery made up for my wobbles, however.

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The mountains were all covered in a green sort of carpeting, the light angled through the gorge, and crops clung to the montainsides in terraces. Cactus and Eucalyptus ruled the landscape, but there were also salvias, daturas, and a shrub resembling Scotch Broom. Once I even spotted an alder tree. (Bolivian climates support a botanical diversity much like California, interestingly. Domestic gardens often include gladiolas, Calendulas, Shasta Daisies and Dahlias.)

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Around the time we “checked in” to our quirky Charazani home, fate had connected us with a young woman named Youjia Song, who was staying in town at a neighboring residencial, but quickly switched to our place. Youjia, of Chinese descent and claiming Australian citizenship, is a nice blend of happy go lucky and practical. She came to Charazani seeking to study and document the roots of some folklorical music from the region that she had once heard, but being a person open to whatever comes her way, she found new adventures every day. She drifted in and out of our adventures too.

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Our second day in town,  she joined us on a hike on an upper path through several smaller villages and clouds. We geeked out on plants, birds and topography all day, losing track of time. We treaded paths well traveled, up and down, over boulders and streams, through ruins and past front yards and graveyards. On the way home, Youjia pulled out a flute and started to play. Suddenly, while passing through a small neighborhood of homes in the wrinkle of a ravine, some children emerged from the twilight in front of us, and then a woman. It was immediately clear that, unlike other locals who had hidden when we passed by, this woman wanted to communicate. She handed us a leaflet about the Kallawaya (regional Native) culture, and invited us in. Youjia and I both already had anticipatory goosebumps, but waited for our compañeros to catch up before entering this other world.

Upon invitation, we sat in a small room with a bed, a stack of thick blankets in one corner, and sacred objects (taxidermied flamingo, bobcat-like creature, llama fetus and bundles of herbs, as well as a poster of the many iterations of coca leaves) on every wall. Our host, Aurelio, identified himself as the village doctor – essentially a curandero. According to Aurelio, medicine men like him now have the option of working in hospitals and other medical facilities in Bolivia, since president Evo Morales legitimized their practices legally. However, whether a curandero would want to work indoors all day is another question, he chuckled to himself.

Our conversation wandered greatly, with Aurelio explaining the medicinal and spiritual uses of many plants in the landscape and the lore surrounding them. There was lots of talk of Pacha Mama (mother earth) and some discussion of the causes of cancer ( bras, diapers, things that restrict the body, according to Aurelio). The topic then switched to electricity service, a mixed blessing in his view, which only arrived in the last two years in the villages there. Indeed, power lines now criss-cross the river, fragmenting the sweeping vistas, and changing life there. The bare light bulb that glows in the middle of the room helps his wife Justinia work on textiles later into the night which helps them make a living, he explained. But not everyone can afford light, so it has become a divider along class lines in the community, he explains with some chagrin. We agreed to come back the next morning, and left brimming with respect, awe and excitement.

The following day we hiked back with a large sack of coca leaves (specially requested by Aurelio). The goal of the return trip was two fold.

After hours of sharing stories and perspectives,  I narrated while Aurelio and Justinia and their children looked through my book of photos from home. At the end of explaining all about dams, salmon, toxic algae and fish kills, Aurelio said if he was allowed to keep the book, he could show people in his community what can happen if a river isn’t cared for. He was not the first person to ask me for the book (nor even the third or fourth) but he was the most genuine and persuasive, and I offered it up without reservation. I felt good knowing that he intended to use it for a good purpose.

The second and more significant part of the visit gave Youjia a chance to request permission to live and work with Aurelio and Justinia while she studied the local musical traditions. Aurelio approved of the project, and her request to be their guest and they arranged details. Having just arrived several days ago, she was thrilled to already be making such profound connections, and to find her work so well received. Soon, we were immersed in a lesson from Aurelio about the complex village leadership structure. I’d try to explain it, but I’m worried I’d mess it up, so we’ll have to wait for Youjia’s research to be published. One thing which became clear as our time in Charazani wore on, however, was that these leaders – in charge of deciding things such as when the village should plant their corn and subject to recall upon failure to accurately predict these dates – are definite cultural victims of climate change, which has been observed in later rain cycles in about the past five years there.

The next day, out for a run, I went past the hotsprings trail, past the upper fork where we had hiked, over the bridge, past the family washing their clothes in the river, and several bends up the slope on the other side. I stopped at a large alder tree in a draw to catch my breath and take in the view back towards Charazani and down the canyon. On the way back, I chose to walk. As I went, an old Bolivian woman entered the road from a steeply descending path off the mountain above and we walked together. She was winding a neon orange strand of yarn onto a spool as she walked, an act reminiscent of a yo -yo artist’s tricks the way Bolivian women do it, though to them it’s as habitual as breathing almost. I tried to strike up a conversation, but quickly realized that her responses were all in Aymara, and basically incomprehensible to me. What’s more, she wasn’t getting much of what I was saying in Spanish. We continued on in an amicable silence.

I made a few more attempts at conversation, and she at responses, but they flopped. We crossed the bridge and started uphill again. I glanced over to find that her yarn was tangled and it had made her flustered. Walking and spinning, no problem. Walking and spinning and talking to a foreigner in a language strange to both of you must be distracting because this task is usually managed with aplomb by these ladies with faces that look like leather. I stopped and offered through gestures to help her get the knots sorted out. She looked skeptical, but handed over the yarn with resignation. What else could she do? We could hardly understand eachother’s communications of yes and no. I let my hands do as they’ve learned over the years with knots. Follow the lead, don’t push or pull, don’t rush, be patient and steady. One of the few instances when small hands are an asset. Within a minute or two, her yarn was tangle-free, and she looked up, delighted. We continued walking in silence until a path split off down the hill. She said something, squeezed my hands tightly with both of hers, and turned left down the mountainside. Without much of any talking, the exchange made my day.

We cooked using what we had. Thank goodness for my camping pot full of spices I had acquired along the way, mostly in Chile, especially the cayenne pepper. Christmas came and went. It was anti-climactic, but the company was good.

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A few days later, Youjia and I and several others from our group set out with a fellow named Feliciano from one of the nearby villages. “I will be your spiritual guide,” Feliciano said, half-joking. As we hoofed down the path downstream of Charazani towards the river, Feliciano gabbed on his cell phone. “Our spiritual guide is talking on his cell phone,” I half-joked in turn. ” Sign of the times.” And it certainly is. With the recent arrival of phone service and electricity, Charazani and surrounding areas feel like a place on the verge of major changes. (As does the Salmon River, I suppose.)

After a brief detour to check out the site of a former grain mill, with a huge stone wheel in the ground that was turned by water, we crossed the river, this time over a bridge constructed of massive tree trunks, mud and branches. Then we zig-zagged up the hill at a leisurely pace, with Feliciano identifying plants according to their medicinal uses along the way. At first it surprised me that Bolivians don’t like to power up hills like we Estado Unidenses do. Then it dawned on me that these people have been walking these paths every day of their entire lives, so what’s the rush?

image image imageNear the top of the ridge we rested on a rocky outcropping with an incredible view in three directions. Then we pushed on over the pass, stopping again to scamper out a thin, barely-there trail of shale to get a look at a deep, vertical chasm across the canyon where Feliciano informed us that condors live. Further out the ridge to the right, cairns mark a sacred place which had an energy pull very much like Orleans Mountain.

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Then on to Feliciano’s hometown on a dry path lined with agave, stopping once to greet his wife who was herding sheep, goats and burros down the road and again to admire the construction of a wall which had been his idea to build. We inclined again to get to his sister’s house, which proudly displayed Evo posters and stickers. He unlocked it for us. The two rooms on the bottom story were nearly empty, except for a large, rusty stove. The second story, accessible only by a makeshift wooden ladder propped at an awkward angle through a hatch in the ceiling, was almost as empty. These upper rooms were dominated by electric sound equipment.

Back down in the yard, chickens wandered and fruit can be eaten off the trees. Feliciano offered us tea, and Youjia accepted on our behalf but begged to sit and drink it in his kitchen. It’s not traditional to allow guests in your kitchen in Latin American cultures. Feliciano hesitated, then acquiesced. The kitchen, in a seperate structure, is small, maybe about 6 feet by eight feet in its dimensions, and we had to duck to get in the doorway. It felt curiously like that scene from Alice in Wonderland where her relative size is distorted, and she has to squish herself into the little room.

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In one dark corner, guineau pigs skittered in a cobb enclosure with a small opening. Feliciano started the tea and explained the nuanced differences between a handful of flutes for different festivals throughout the year. The flutes are laid out on a nearby sheepskin for observation. Frolicking kittens came and went. Bread and delicious tea made from “cascarra de cafe” (the skins of coffee beans) was served. We broke out the lunch supplies we brought, and shortly after, Feliciano’s super sweet kids arrive home from school. We toured his garden, greenhouse and library before leaving. What an enlightened character!

More switchbacks up the hill to a wind-beaten little church on the ridge that we’ve been eying since we got to Charazani. The church is locked, and only opened up on special occasions, but it affords a good view in all directions- a nice reward for all the ups and downs and switchbacks.

A solid five days in Charazani felt like a lifetime. It was a hugely influential chapter in our Bolivia travels, and we left with much to reflect on during the next leg of our journey to Isla de Sol.

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