Somewhere in the middle of the high Bolivian desert, I crouched down next to the remains of a human. The bleached bones were pouring out of the mouth of a tomb, a skull looking up at me from its side. Animals and grave-robbers has dislodged this once important person from his resting place, and no one had bothered to put him back.
After evading the blockades our bus finally found a paved highway. The dust dissipated and the bone jarring tremors gave way to a smooth ride across the Altiplano. The Bolivian High Plains feels like the roof of the world. At altitudes of up to 13,700 feet, the air is thin and the land is sparse and desolate, covered in bizarre rock formations and tufts of tough brown grasses. As they have for millennium, llamas, alpacas and their wild ancestor the vicuña, graze amongst the rocks. Despite its desolation it is the cradle of one of the greatest civilizations the world has known, the Incan Empire. The Incas inherited the military and engineering knowledge of a dozen earlier Andean civilizations, all of them living a hard existence on the Altiplano.
As dust colored mountains rolled past, it was impossible to miss the traces of thousands of years of civilization. Disintegrating terraces were cut into every hillside, horizontal grooves that contoured the landscape. A few farms and villages still utilized them, but it was clearly the work of a much larger population, built to feed an empire. Here and there in the hills, consistently facing east toward the rising sun, cubes of adobe rose out of the scrub. They were the Chullpas, the tombs of kings, of Incas and of far older civilizations. The Aymara, the Quechua, the Tiwanaku all built these tombs to house the mummified remains of their most important citizens. Now mostly looted of their wealth and the remains of their inhabitants, they still watch over the empty, rocky waste of their former kingdoms. They were the reason we were headed across the Altiplano.
A snow capped mountain appeared on the horizon. It grew until it dominated all other mere hills and became the most important landmark for miles. Mount Sajama gives its name to the first national park in Bolivia and to the region it towers above. We skirted its base, heading towards the point at which we’d asked the bus driver to drop us off. After miles of uninhabited countryside the attendant on the bus told us to get ready to disembark. As we rolled into the scruffy town of Tambo Quemado on the Chilean border we collected our things. Soon the bus was passing through customs, leaving us by ourselves in a dirt parking lot, looking lost. Trucks that had also defied the blockades roared past, choking us with grit.
We finally found our contact, Señor Felipe, an Aymara Indian with whom we’d be exploring Sajama for the next few days. After introductions we got into his white minivan and drove back the way we’d come, retracing our route past the base of the Mountain. I was starting to wonder if we were heading back to La Paz when Señor Felipe turned off the paved road onto what he called an “Incan Highway”, not because it was one, but because it was a dirt track hardly fit to walk on much less drive. I felt calling it that was a bit unfair to the legendary road building prowess of his ancestors.
We bounced across rocks and dry creek beds, again choking on the dust that poured into every crevasse of his minivan. The road was interminable. On our left, Mount Sajama gradually changed as we rounded her, the sunlight finding new facets of her regal carriage. We passed through the world’s highest forest, though it didn’t appear as such. It is made up of the queñua tree, by far the highest altitude tree on earth. It seemed more a shrub than a tree, but it provided the people of Sajama with ample firewood for cooking and warmth.
Finally, at a point I estimated was directly on the other side of the mountain from where we’d started, a little white pueblo appeared, nestled between the grasses and the boulders that had rolled down from the volcano’s flanks. Above the village rose a little white bell tower, belonging to a miniature colonial church fashioned from adobe. The bell tower, every face of the church and those of the surrounding thatch roofed houses were crooked and looked to have been molded by hand. Some of the huts looked ancient and their thatch was crumbling inwards, other huts looked newly built, the thatch golden instead of a grey brown. Three narrow lanes separated several blocks of huts. It was a charming, picturesque little village, made breathtaking by the snowy volcano looming behind it. We’d made it to Tomarapi, a village transformed into a guest lodge, run by the members of the community of Sajama.
Together the indigenous community had created accommodations in a attempt to take ownership of the growing tourist industry in Sajama. Several foreign companies had approached the community about leasing land to build lodges, but seeing what had happened to other indigenous communities around Bolivia when outsiders moved in, they declined and began thinking about starting their own hotel. Members of the community take turns running the hotel and giving tours to the guests of their rich natural landscape. Over the last few years Tomarapi has become a model for how indigenous groups can profit from tourism without compromising either their resources or their heritage.
We talked to Señor Felipe about taking us out of the park and south to Rio Lauca where we’d read a cluster of painted chullpas were. Something about the chullpas had struck a chord with Magda, perhaps because she loves any self contained structure, be it post-modern or Pre-Incan. Señor Felipe agreed and early the next morning, just as a pink light was kissing the crest of Mount Sajama, we were back in his car, and back on the Incan Highway.
As we drove we passed herds of llamas and alpacas that had been let out to pasture at dawn. They peered at us comically, little rainbow colored tassels denoting ownership wiggling on their ears. For centuries the civilizations born on the high plains have relied on llamas for sustenance and the warmth of their wool, so much so that these cousins of the camel became venerated figures in Andean mythology.
We crossed the paved highway and set out onto an even bumpier road. The minivan shuddered as it drove over washboarded gravel and dipped down into creeks and gullies. Through one dry ravine Señor Felipe asked us to get out and walk so the car would be lighter. While he picked his way over boulders slick with mud, we took in the wide open Altiplano, a bleak savannah dotted with llamas, vicuñas and miles of unbroken grassland. There were even a dozen grazing rheas, the South American ostrich. The air was thin and frigid, and, aside from the growling of Señor Felipe’s car, absolutely silent. We could still see Sajama, but closer now were several other volcanos, one of which was actively steaming.
We drove for several hours, the sun rising faster than we’d have liked. We passed through another small town like Tomarapi with its own white washed hand-molded church. As we neared the lagunas of Rio Lauca, we began to ford rivers rushing down from the snow capped mountains. Señor Felipe and I would get out of the car and look at the torrent ponderously, sometimes pointing upstream or down, making manly noises that sounded like agreement. Then we’d climb back in and he’d plunge into the river, rocks sliding beneath us, water pounding at the minivan’s sliding door. The secret, he’d reveal as we exited on the other side, was to keep going.
Finally we started seeing Chullpas. At first four little loafs, their backs to the mountains, facing the rising sun. Each had a series of dots above the door that may have been decorative, but probably denoted some rank in society. These were smaller than the ones we were looking for so we drove on.
Finally after another anxious river crossing we spotted a family of much larger chullpas, this time painted with earthy colors and bold geometric designs. While Magda set up her tripod and Señor Felipe parked the car at a further distant site, I crouched down and looked into blackness of the interior. Nothing looked back. These massive tombs had been raided, their mummies possibly taken to a museum, their treasure very likely in Europe. We moved onto the smaller Chullpas, they were of lesser importance and therefore seemed to have not been as thoroughly pillaged. At least not pillaged by humans.
There is a lot of debate in the worlds of anthropology and archeology about the true number of people living in the Pre-Colombian Americas. Some say less than seven million in South America, maybe a million in North America. Newer thinking has the numbers much, much higher, between 90 and 122 million in South, Central, and North America. The Low Number believers have a very compelling piece of (non)evidence: there are relatively few human remains. Also if the High Number believers are correct, then the European conquest of the Americas looks less like a ‘discovery’ and more like a full scale holocaust. This might make people very uncomfortable.
As I crouched down to peer into another chullpa, traditionally left with an open door facing east, I was surprised by the scattered remains of a skeleton. The longer bones seemed to have been pulled towards the doorway and picked clean of flesh or skin by predators. I jumped to my feet and looked closer at the other lesser tombs around me, skulls and bones poured from the mouths of most of them, bleached white by the high sun. I pictured the remains of those less well interred, the millions of common folk in shallow graves or rock niches. Whichever important dignitary I was looking at was lucky to have any sign left of his existence at all. Empty eye sockets stared upwards, giving no clue about a life every bit as complex, dramatic and as full of love and laughter as our own.
“These should be in a museum!” I told Señor Felipe. He shrugged.
Later, eating lunch in the shores of a salt lake, I asked Señor Felipe if his family had always been in Sajama. He nodded and said they had.
“My grandfather, and my grandfather’s grandfather.” He stated, in slow Spanish so I could understand. “And yours? Always in America?”
I thought of his ancestors, some of whom I’d just recently met. I thought of the thousands of miles of terracing we’d passed.
“Also.” I said. “Many grandfathers in America. But before, Europe. We came from Europe. Like the Spanish.”
“You have Indios in North America.” He didn’t ask, he knew the answer.
“Yes, a few still.”
It turns out a contingent of Navajo people had come to visit Sajama dressed in their finest traditional clothes. Señor Felipe had worn his most traditional Bolivian costume to meet them. It must have been an interesting discussion.
The next day, back at Tomarapi, Señor Felipe invited us to a community wide soccer game he was playing in. He asked if I played and I did a little shuffling dance to show my deft footwork. He took this as a no. He told us when and where, and giving ourselves some time, we started walking down the gravel road to the another little town on the other side of the valley. At 13 thousand feet it was slow going. We stopped often to have one sided conversations with llamas, or shoot more pictures of the ubiquitous and endlessly photogenic Mount Sajama. It was quiet, windy and incredibly peaceful. The people of the community still subsisted entirely on products from llamas and alpaca so no farm equipment hummed, there was only the soft chewing of grasses from camelids to break the endless silence.
When we reached the town it seemed empty. We poked our heads into open doors only to find the people gone. The Main Street was a wide dirt track. The wind spun dust-devils across our path. It seemed odd that a community wide soccer match could be hidden somewhere in the little town, but we kept walking and finally started hearing shouts and seeing ladies in bowler hats stomping towards the other edge of the village. We walked through a schoolyard and found a large soccer field on the other side, surrounded by dozens of people in traditional dress: black cloaks with rainbow colored shawls, black fedoras and brown bowler hats with baubles hanging from them. The teams wore professional looking synthetic uniforms and kicked a ball across a slightly angled dirt pitch. The ball occasionally broke free and rolled towards the valley. Little kids chased it down.
Señor Felipe approached us dressed in western style clothes, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. He told us he probably wouldn’t be playing that day and wondered if we’d like to go. We supposed that at some point our stay in this tranquil place had to end, and we climbed back in his van to collect our things.
On the way back to the Chilean border, where we’d catch another bus back towards the city of Oruro, a giant traffic jam was blocking the highway. Dozens of trucks headed towards the border as well clogged both lanes. Oncoming traffic was stuck behind the mess as well. Like a lot of highways in Bolivia there was no shoulder, only a steep embankment to grassland below. Señor Phillipe tried to pass around the stalled trucks, his tires pushing gravel down the steep drop on the left. Then a truck was coming towards us, also passing the stationary snarl. He didn’t seem to care that we were there and continued without slowing. Señor Phillipe pulled farther over to the left, and as the truck passed with less than an inch to spare, our tire slipped over the edge. We were sliding off. I looked out of my window and saw the ground beneath us, gravel and boulders and grass, seven or eight feet below. I shifted to the other side of the minivan to bring more weight to the uphill side, and sat as still as possible. Magda was leaning against her door as well.
“Señor Felipe?” I asked.
He looked at me in the rear view mirror, without any apparent concern.
I always have to remember that incidents like this are not worth getting excited about in places like Bolivia. He put the minivan in reverse, and despite the fact his front left tire was hanging in space, he caught enough traction and we rolled slowly backwards until we were upright once more.
When we finally made it to the border, we embraced Señor Phillipe and felt a tug of longing to stay in Sajama. But before we could announce our intentions to settle down under the volcano, he was gone. Once again we were standing alone in a gravel parking lot on the Chilean border, choking on truck exhaust and wondering what to do.