Route: La Paz – Coroico
Company: Public bus
Level: a small coach
Cost: 15 Bolivianos
10:00-14:00 (4 hours)
Take a bus or taxi to Minasa Terminal de Buses, near Villa Fatima. People will be shouting ‘Coroico‘. The normal thing to do is either buy a ticket at one of the hole-in-the-wall agencies, or get on the public bus (if you can work out which it is!) and pay once your on, like we did. The bus takes the new scenic road; it does not go down the ‘death road’! That is reserved for those on bikes and the occasional foolish, almost-certainly-drunk Bolivian lorry driver.
The trip went like this:
The bus moves slowly through the fidgeting traffic. We stop next to a truck and metal girders are loaded on top of the bus followed by sacks full of bricks. They laugh as one of them almost falls off the ladder trying to get the sack on top. Finally he uses his knee to push it up to his shoulder and a helping hand reaches down from above. Through a hole in the wall I can see more sacks of cement piled up high. Boys with the first suggestions of moustaches, dressed in overalls and wide-brimmed hats, load each bag onto their heads – the bag sags gently – then throw it into the undercarriage of the bus. One looks round and sucks in deeply exposing a black hole where his front teeth should be. Another has gold around his incisors like shining fangs.
Responsible for seat-placing and payment are two boys no older than 13. One has dark skin and wears a stripy woolly jumper, a cap, and is always with headphones. At one point he approaches me and asks “me vas a cancelar?” to which I respond with an I-don’t-understand face. He sighs exaggeratedly, as if I were a child trying his patience, then uses the word ‘pagar’ and I hand over 100 Bolivianos. He comes back with a note for 10. On goes a film, something with Hugh Jackman about a robot; dubbed of course.
The other boy is black with short fuzzy hair that seems to grow out in small clumps. He’s shaped it so that it is longer in the central column like a flat Mohican. He leans against the glass that shields the passengers from the door and, left arm resting on his up-bent leg, watches the film.
It is unusual to see black people in Bolivia; the majority of the population come from golden-skinned indigenous stock, although it wasn’t until Evo Morales became President that an indigenous person held the highest office in the land.
When the Spanish discovered a gleaming mountain of silver at Potosí in 1544 it was the indigenous population, the Aymara and Quechua, who were sent down the hopeless tunnels for 12-hour stints of back-breaking labour amid the mercury vapours and darkness. Millions died, 90% of the indigenous population lost forever to the ‘Cerro Rico’, the ‘rich hill’ towering above the city that by the end of the century had the same population as London.
The Spanish rulers patched up their thinning workforce with African slaves. From the plains of Africa they found themselves high in the Andes (the Cerro Rico rises to 15,827 feet) chewing coca leaves to numb themselves from the cold and the altitude, working for months at a time without seeing the sun. When they were finally taken out they’d be blindfolded to prevent their going blind. Some 30,000 Africans were shipped to Potosí, where they would typically last for no more than four months.
The buildings here on the outskirts of La Paz are thinning out leaving just metal foundation prongs and occasional brick houses sitting on concrete platforms. We stop in front of some such buildings, corrugated iron shops growing out, blue tarpaulins shielding the rows of soft drinks and netted apples and bags of bread and toilet roll from the spitting rain. A child waddles out of the dark of a corrugated iron box and bends forward and back. He is dressed all in wool, grey and white, hat, jumper and trousers.
Many of the passengers left the bus to buy food. One chola wearing a long blue skirt with shining flowers and a woolly cardigan, turquoise, picks through fried fish with her worn fat fingers. I can see the exposed spine of the fish flop sadly; it’s pinched between her thumb and finger. Her right hand dives back into the plastic bag and pulls out a round brown something which she flicks into her mouth with two efficient pushes. A small piece drops onto her shirt. She leaves it and continues picking around the fish spine. Now her thumb and finger are wet with grease. The fat under her chin continues flopping up and down. She drops the spine, cleaned to reveal skinny grey barbs, but seems not to notice. It lies there on the floor, stuck by its own wet remains. Out comes a green fleshy banana and after a potato which she peels with a sharp scarred black-rimmed fingernail. Another spine bounces from her left pinch. She tilts her head slightly to see if anything more hides amongst the folds of the plastic bag while licking her fingers. Finding some sticky balls of rice, she shovels them in, not caring for the clumps that fall into her lap.
The film stalls. A minute later the young boy with the headphones jumps up and starts fiddling with the controls, rewinding and fast-forwarding and pausing and playing until giving up. He ejects then replaces it. ‘Leer’, it reads but doesn’t load. It’s died. Instead we begin a wildlife documentary called ‘natural born sinners’.
The chola ties the bag up with her little fingers then wipes the other fingers on a tissue. Still greasy, she opens the bag enough to slip in the tissue, then rubs her fingers on her skirt and the plastic arm rest.
Stones are graffitied with ‘Che’ in thick white letter. Does this have anything to do with the Argentine revolutionary? He did die in Bolivia. I ask a Bolivian and he tells me that Che is the nickname for a local politician, I sense he’s making it up.
We pass petrol tankers through the cloud; far below is the valley floor. Through the clinging cloud I can make out sharp angular shapes. It is as if the clouds were fluffy clumps of cotton stuck to the grooves of the cliffs.
Empty brick houses. The only movement a tarpaulin flapping in the window. A thin waterfall draws a silver line down the cliff. Pine trees appear on the valley floor. A power line grows out of the mountainside. Cloud hides a river striped with white far below. Now all is grey, hiding the drop. Corrugated iron houses loom in and out of existence. Cholas sit outside almost bare shops waiting for someone to stop, their heads bent forward like a vulture and their eyes hopeless. Thin lines of rain stick to the windows of the bus.
A pigeon flies up and past the window almost crashing. We are stopped at another crop of red brick houses, this time fronted by wooden porches. My neighbour buys an empanada for 2 Bolivianos. It is orange and seemingly empty. With it he buys some pineapple juice wrapped into a polythene tube. He throws the wrappers out the window when done into the lush green leaves covering the banks.
We honk at two enormous birds of prey that flap languidly away, as if doing us a favour, into a nearby branch with a view over the valley. His round opaque eye follows us by. It smells tropical, like India, like humid hazy jungle.
This is where the African slaves escaped to after emancipation. They streamed away from the forbidding heights down to the Yungas, where the mountains begin to melt away into the tropical lowlands. Tomorrow we plan to hike from Coroico down into the valley then up the other side to the Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña.
It is in the Yungas where the coca leaves that kept the slaves working in the black corridors of Potosí are grown. During the week the men of Tocaña go out into the hills to find work in the coca fields. I wonder if they realise that just as their livelihood depends on the coca leaf, so their ancestors’ lives depended on it, for down in the mines those who could not fight the cold and the altitude and the hunger perished immediately. Only the coca-chewers had even a chance of survival.
We are climbing again, this time up unpaved road, and soon we are staring into nothing. Palm trees tilt clumsily on the banks. Brick houses. Corrugated iron roofs. The smell of burning; again I think of India, of Goa, a hazy evening crossing the bridge by which children play football on the scrubby plain and rubbish burns on the roadside.
A passenger starts up a radio: a woman’s high-pitched talking over music consisting of synthesised drums and horns blasting. The roads break off and up from our cobbled road, leading to lonesome houses fighting the encroaching jungle. On one a window ledge is overcome by pots with cacti and purple flowers.
I can see Coroico. A stack of towers, some painted, some left plain, growing out of the mountain’s bank. It is not beautiful. Behind it swirl the clouds slowly. Twigs scrape the windows. Green everywhere, sometimes almost yellow. Bananas hang like chandeliers.
Now I see the town closer. Its ugliness owes to its gutted unfinished blocks like black holes looking out over the valley. A wooden sign with yellow writing says ‘Bienvenidos a / Welcome to Coroico’. A parrot is speaking the words. Blue, white, and green plaster. Stone walls as high as men and trucks with building materials every 20 metres. Coca-cola, Entel internet. The main high street rises slowly and we wobble over a mound of disembowelled road onto the main plaza.