El Alto unravelled like a ball of thread. Jostling minibuses, jammed elbow-to-elbow crowds, street stalls spilling onto the roads, beeps, shouts and diesely fumes in ahighlyconfinedspace suddenly p a s s e d.
The minibus picks up speed whirring through a dusty rubbled landscape whose monotonous colours seeped into the uninterrupted line of concrete houses that stood aloof from the road. Children scratch in the earth alongside mangy dogs. A tattered black plastic bag, caught in the draft of our bus, dances almost happily in front of the pyramid of old worn tyres.
At an anonymous junction, we tumble out into a queue of battered cars. "Amachuma" we chirrup. "We want the house of the Gringos," we say. A slight taciturn nod of the head, and we are soon bumping down an old track past dry fields that unbelievably yield potatoes and wheat. We curve up to a shallow ridge, where the village opens up suddenly. A towering Mount Illimani fills the horizon, almost breathing, impossibly close.
Maggie greets us in her sonorous voice as Juliette, Thea and I skirt into the courtyard of her naked-brick house whose ground floor is shared with an Aymaran family. Maggie’s six-year old daughter unexpectedly picks me out for a big hug. Her son is absorbed in a corner of the main room with a little electronic game closely watched by his best friend and village neighbour, who clearly thinks it is his turn to have a go.
Maggie and Tim are Maryknoll missionaries who chose to come out and live on the altiplano (high plain) a few years ago. Maggie is involved in assertiveness training for young women and the campaign to bring ex-President Goni to trial for his responsibility for repression in 2003 that led to 67 deaths. Her poney-tailed husband Tim is involved in cross-cultural mission work linking with priests who naturally interweave Christianity and Aymaran traditions. Both their faces are mottled pink and dry by the harsh altiplano sun.
I gaze from their kitchen window across the flat brown landscape. My flat is hidden in the crumples of the landscape below Illimani but feels like many more miles away. I have running water, electricity, bars and restaurants on my doorstep, even supermarkets with mascarpone cheese. Maggie and Tim get water pumped into barrels once a month that they carry up in buckets, their electricity flickers on and off, water is constantly on the boil to prevent infections, and their proudest new household item is a compost toilet. (Actually the handmade smell-free compost toilet was pretty impressive!)
After lunch, we head out in to the softening light of the village. The sun burns the face, but there is an edge to the wind that bites through my jumper and fleece. Goats are already starting to huddle in crumbling former houses. The newly painted community library stands out in the village, but as my eyes adjust I notice that the apparent monotony of dusty-brown houses, fields and tracks is breaking up into a mix of browns, yellows and goldens.
We arrive at the edge of football field where we are warmly greeted by drunk villagers straddled across large crates of beer who are only half-watching the unfolding football match. They swing in close with a rush of questions, alcoholic breath steaming in the air.
There is a warmth and spirit that is hard to find in a city. I got to know my neighbour by borrowing a cable connection for the World Cup; Tim with experiences like being woken up that same day at 7am with a request to borrow his toolkit. Lives necessarily intertwine in a village.
But there is also a sense that the alcohol is a way of masking a harsh life where the village survives off providing milk for Peruvian milk multinational Pil or money scrabbled together in odd pieces of work in nearby La Paz and El Alto. Maggie jokingly asks a young woman in polera and bowler hat sitting nearby if the men are looking after her: she nervously laughs a yes. I wonder what happens when drunk husbands return home, their hardened world looming large in alcohol-fuelled thoughts.
As if drawn by a hidden energy, we strike out towards the edge of the plateau with its theatrical Illimani backdrop. The sun is starting to arc towards dusk, creating textured patterns across some fields with wheat and others with ploughed earth. We greet an elderly woman in a threadbare skirt, face lined with years, neatly spreading out chuño (freeze dried potatoes)on the ground. She chatters away with the gluttural clicks and sounds of Aymara.
Then we are at the edge of the altiplano with a moonscape of hills below and the very edges of La Paz peeking around the corner. Illimani is miles away but it seems to soar upwards from our feet. As the light coloured gold, faded and then unexpectedly reappeared in a burst of vivid pink, Juliette made handstands against the mountainous kaleidascope.
The distant shouts of football started to fade, so we wandered back arms interlocked in intermittent silence and conversation to the village whose houses cast spirals of smoke, smells of food and burbles of muffled conversation into the cold darkening air.
We discover that we have missed any transport back after the football, so Tim finds his neighbour in the middle of a game of cards with friends and persuades him to drive us to the main road. His neighbour confesses he is drunk although his drooping eyes and voice speak before he does: "I must admit I have had a few drinks but Tim is such a good friend that I have to take you," he blurs. He weaves erratically down a thankfully wide road.
Then arms-wrapped around us against the shivering cold, we hop quickly into a minibus and back into the traffic horns, streaming peopled-streets and bustling cacophony, before winding down through the sparkling-waterfall nightlights of La Paz to my flat with its whirring stocked fridge, blinking TV and the fug comfort of a city.