I watched dawn break over the distant compressed concrete of Cochabamba, shimmering in the valley below my feet with intensity in the early sun. I tried to make out my house, but it remained an untraceable dot in a myriad mosaic of fields, riverbeds, farms and houses.
Behind me, two adobe houses in a little dell amongst the hills merged in with the clay soil, broken only by a pink skirt and blue shirt drying on the straw roof. Llamas huddled in close to the house underneath arching large power cables providing electricity to cities yet leaving these candlelit houses affected only by its gentle hum.
Here I was in the cold air of the altiplano (high plains) yet with clear views of the sub-tropical valley of Cochabamba. As I breathed deeply, I felt like I was linking my altiplano world of La Paz with my new home in the valleys in central Bolivia.
The sense of being between two worlds has been resonant since my arrival in Cochabamba. It perhaps explains why I haven’t felt able to write about it yet, confused and dislocated amidst great beauty and in a community that feels so different to Bolivia’s capital city. But seeing my location from a distance seems to have allowed my fingers to flicker again over this keyboard to give some of my first and still formulating impressions of Totorkawa.
The first impression of Totorkawa is undoubtedly one of absorbing beauty. At first for me it lacked the drama of La Paz nestled as my former home was in a cauldron-like bowl beneath the awesome mountain of Illimani. But in the temporary house I am in, the landscape is framed in almost every window. Fragments of beauty that sink in over time.
In the morning, I fling open shutters for views of solid and reassuring mountains, their ridges crumpled like green skirts, trees and fields caught in wisps of early morning mist, a sky deepening in rich blue. My twenty-five minute wander to a trufi (shared taxi) stop takes me through freckled eucalpytus-tree shadows along a rutted lane accompanied by the gurgling and rushing of water along irrigation channels, veins of life feeding into fields of wheat, maize, potatoes and beans.
Out in the fields, a campesino couple are piling tomatoes into boxes to take into market. In the evenings, walks are slowed down by cow rush hour, as men and women scurry along making angry "tttishhh[es]" as they try to steer the lumbering beasts back onto the lane away from the luscious green distractions off the path. Mount Tunari, a mere 18000 feet is caught by a last flash of sunlight as the horizon deepens into a rich dark pink. I close the shutters as the birdsong dims to be replaced by dog barks and the distorted sounds of a chicheria (bars that serve a popular fermented maize drink) music system.
My second impression is one of a community that still has connection and a way of living that has been lost in cities and and societies like the UK. Cycling home the other night in almost pitch-black, Juliette and I stumbled across a village meeting underneath the main water tower. Rows of campesino and campesino faces dimly lit by a ghostly fluorescent light, gathered as people have for centuries here to plan communal activities (as it turned out later this time planning for a big party under the same tower later this week).
People in the lanes greet each other. Men in caps, calloused hands and shovels, women in round white ribboned hats with hidden burdens in colourful striped cloths on their back, children in white medical-like gowns that is the school uniform here. In a short time here, I have got to know more neighbours than I got to know in a year and a half in La Paz. Our nearest neighbour Prima, a young indigenous woman with two children and the caretaker of our temporary house has weaved her life in with ours like the textiles she patiently and beautifully develops.
Communities here still practice ayni which translates as reciprocity and means that families help each other out with harvests and work where communal support is invaluable. It does not need much for communities to gel together. Two friends Ricardo and Valentina had a full house for days after signalling to the community that they had prepared chicha by hanging a colourful red lantern outside their house. Appreciative neighbours and villagers flooded in, and were soon dancing traditional cuecas on the patio stained with splashes of chicha offered to Pachamama (mother earth).
Yet, my third impression is that this life is increasingly under threat. Totorkawa is also a village on the edge. Scattered amongst the fields, irrigation ditches and simple adobe houses are big expensive-looking houses whose owners are absent physically or certainly don’t attempt to play any positive role in community living. Middle class Cochabambinos talk to me of moving out and commuting in, in English terms looking to turn these communities into the “Surrey” of Cochabamba city. Even behind the warm earth walls of adobe houses, there are occasionally unfinished ugly brick houses awaiting the next batch of money from family members working in Spain to complete the next floor.
The city encroaches ever closer – even in my short time here. Dirt tracks become paved. City lighting extend their tentacles into the last remaining pitch black lanes. Campesino Don Ramiro unloads a TV and DVD from his truck in a nearby house. His first show, that Andean epic – Rambo 🙂 Teenager Delia stops wearing her pollera, her traditional dress and starts wearing tracksuit trousers and a Tshirt that proclaims her as Glitter Girl. In the local town, Tiquipaya, village boys crowd into internet cafes to play violent video games that involve graphically pummelling their opponents to death.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that we have already disturbingly seen evidence of violence in our neighbourhood, particularly against women. Yet whilst it may be fuelled by video games, the growing violence is undoubtedly also rooted in the sense of dislocation and disruption here. When Juliette asked Prima why some men are violent, she interestingly replied, “Because men don’t have chakras (land).” Disconnection with our most basic connection to land creating violence. What’s more, in a community where people no longer know everyone, anonymity becomes the cover for brutality. The overwhelming beauty here is consequently tinged at times by moments of fear and insecurity, like a creeping fungus on eucalyptus trees.
Sitting high up in the mountains looking down on Cochabamba, two things struck me. One was the immense spread of houses along the whole valley: the dense city of Cochabamba dispersed like shotgun pellets after decades of intense immigration into the valley. The other was that the densest patch of green was in the area where our house is. Our community seems to be playing out that tension between city and countryside. But it is not enough to just view Totorkawa from afar. It is only as you get close up, that you appreciate the beauties and contradictions of community life here. You certainly can’t romanticise life here, but from even my very short term it is clear that there is a vibrancy and depth here that I have barely scratched. Close-up amidst great beauty is also great complexity.