Oruro, Bolivia, 3.706 metres above sea level.
This is where I arrive by bus from Santiago via the road through the north along the coast, passing by the city of Iquique. This is where I decide to adapt to the altitude. What an atmosphere, feeling the spirit of the Andes even as the road turns off the coast, getting steeper and steeper and reaching the Altiplano which stretches out before me. I am the only foreigner on the bus. Girls on the street admire my blond hair and school boys whisper to each other, wondering if I might be from Japan. On the market – what a market!!! – the “Cholas” smile and between Aymara- or Quetschua-words (two indigenous languages of the country) mumble “gringa”. I feel save and happy being invited to stay by Padre Bernardino, a former bishop of Coyhaique, whom my dear friend Peter Hartmann from Patagonia suggested I should visit. I spend a few nights at the Sanctuario de la Virgen de Socavón, a church that’s been constructed above a former mine. This Socavón Virgin is a mixture between the Virgin Mary and Pachamama (Mother Earth). Very wise were the Spanish conquerors to mingle indigenous myths with biblical figures in order to convince the people of the Andes of their Catholic faith (summarized extremely briefly).
Again and again I read that Bolivia is one of the poorest countries of the earth, but I don’t see that poverty! On the contrary. The people are infinitely reach, taking only into consideration the quinoa, supposedly 200 different kinds of potatoes, corn, vegetables etc. that are sold on the market. Farmers in Patagonia can only dream of that. And still, Bolivians believe they are poor, emulating Chile. But it’s other values that constitute “richness” in the minds of most people. Padre Bernardino said in one of our conversations: “The real Conquista has been happening over the past 50 years, not 500 years ago.”
I decide to leave the Uyuni saltlake to the numerous other tourists and continue to La Paz, residence of the government of Bolivia. During the three weeks that I am going to spend in this country, the protests and road blockades that have just started will continue. That’s one of the things Bolivia is famous for.
Therefore I head off for Coroico in the Yungs – not like the majority of other backpackers by bike via the “world’s most dangerous road”, but by minibus, accompanied by Eminem and Jay-Z songs coming out of the cell phone of a young Bolivian behind me. As I see a few condors above me that float with the wind along the steep hills of the green Yungas, I pray of other songs, but neither does Rihanna belong to one of my favourite “singers”. I decide to ignore the music and concentrate on the changing vegetation that gets more and more dense as we descend down the curvy road, as the valleys get more and more narrow, the air warmer and more humid.
The town of Coroico is situated on a terrace like platform looking out at four of these narrow Yunga valley. The only flat place seems to be the main square. The other streets either lead steeply up or down. In the mid-day heat I hike up to the „Hostal Sol y Luna“, where I camp for 23 Bolivianos (aprx. €2,50) – with a beautiful view and two swimming pools. Right away I head of the Uchumachi-mountain, but eventhough I am well rested, I have a hard time continuing. The wind gets really strong. Thunderstorms are approaching from two directions. I decide to turn around. Too bad! I would have loved to see the orchids in the forest up there and enjoy the spectacular view.
Back in the Hostal I meet Isabella from Upper Austria, who has been living in La Paz for a while and who is working on her dissertation in political sciences, and Oscar. The two of them explain to me what the present protests are about: The teachers union and the medical union are requesting a raise of 20 % or more, despite the fact that they have only just been granted 5 % more. The medics have another list of requests, one of them opposing granting traditional healers in Bolivia the same status – one of the policies of the new government. They also say that the opposition is giving financial support to the protestors, and also that the opposition is financing that with foreign (north American) interests. Because the government of president Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the country, has made the protection of traditional indigenous values and languages as well as of the earth part of the new constitution – that, of course, does not harmonize with the neo-liberal interests of multi-national enterprises that have their eyes set on lithium and petrol in the region.
After one night in Coroico in which the moon shines into my opened tent I leave this wonderful place and head on to Sapecho to visit the cocoa trees of the Bolivian cooperative “El Ceibo” there. El Ceibo is neither a private nor a nationalized company, but it belongs to the people that work here. The farmers have merged as so-called “socios” and as owners are themselves responsible for their work and life. As such they form the business, and all family members are part of it.
For his chocolate with 100 % cacao the Austrian chocolate manufacturer Josef Zotter bought a few tons there. His chocolate costs 3 € and every now and again I have heard people in Austria say that it is without doubt exceptional, but also very expensive. All ingredients are organic and fair trade. He voluntarily pays more as the fair trade world market price. And I as myself, as a few guys and I drive from one family to the other to another to collect cacao beans, seeing the dingy housings of some of them, how the life of other cacao growers might look like that, of those who get much much less for their products…
My question, why I have not been able to climb the Uchumachi mountain in Coroico, is answered by Brigida. This woman is coordinating hers and a group of farmers’ visit of El Ceibo to learn a few tricks about cacao for making a cooperative for cacao, citrus and rice further up north in the Amazonas region of the country. She explains: the Uchumachi is an “Apu”, one of the mountains that used to be a powerful person. Before ascending one has to ask the Apu’s permission. I did not ask and, therefore, was not able to reach the top. That simple!
In Sapecho I experience helpfulness and hospitality like never before in my life. I feel like I am being carried around on a throne. At 6.30 in the morning, Don Francisco drives me to the collective taxis to go on my 7-hour journey back to La Paz, along the narrow roads passing steep cliffs that were unable to pass the week prior to my visit due to heavy rainfalls of the reason. I promise him to come back one day. And that promise I want to keep.
There are two more special places I visit in Bolivia: Tihuanaco and the Isla del Sol in the Titicaca Lake. Cocacabana, the place of pilgrimage at the lake, is extremely crowded with people during Easter, therefore I hop on a boat as fast as I can in order to get to the Northern part of the island from here. Two nights I spent on the beach of Challapampa, I hike up to the Northern tip of the island, where one bay after the other appears to be more “Greek” – only the shepherds are missing – but the quinoa plants that grow only above 4000 metres and temple ruins at this very special place remind me where I am.
Accompagnied by Andrés, a young Argentinian, I set off at dawn to Yumani at the Southern tip. We are rewarded with breathtaking views into all directions. Sitting on the roof of the boat Andrés shares mate tea with me and other travellers. Grateful for having visited this wonderful place I look back at the island and out at the lake. That’s how my time in Bolivia and the whole trip is slowly coming to an end.