The big question when I left for Bolivia was: “Why are you going again?” I think it is time to answer the question again expressed slightly differently why I am still here?.
It wasn’t the first time that I woke up with my neighbour Irineo knocking on the gate. His hours are definitely more campo (rural) than mine. I went down to open the gate, trying not to trip over our Zebedee-bouncing black dog, Shnook. “Are you ready? Let’s go. We need to go and pray,” Irineo said insistently. I was puzzled.
My gentle and unassuming neighbour hadn’t seemed a very religious person, even though he stands out from other men in Callachulpa for his teetotal abstinence. Still I guessed it was something to do with it being a holiday, Dia de los Santos (All Saints Day) so I started to bargain with him to get time to have a coffee and some breakfast.
As we drank coffee and ate some bread his wife had made, we watched little yellow birds dart around the molle tree and talked about our trip from La Paz. (Juliette and I had earlier in the week travelled the 7 hour journey from the capital in Irineo’s milk truck luxuriating in the little bed in the truck cabin).
Fortified with caffeine, we then headed along a dusty rutted lane, past an old woman carefully shepherding a herd of cows and sheep, to arrive at Irineo’s lodgings. It consists of some open rooms at the back of a half-built big house (a common sight here where there are increasing numbers of over-the-top houses built usually with remittances that come in batches). Irineo changed into a smart shirt, which made me wonder if I should do the same. But he told me we had no time to lose so off we set.
In fifteen minutes we arrived at Toroma, a cluster of adobe houses, surrounded by lush green fields of alfafa refreshed by a nearby river. A gaggle of kids accompanied us to the house of Don Julian, a house that circled a large courtyard filled with benches. In the centre of the concrete patio was a strip of garden full of fruit trees and locoto plants (spicy peppers in all food here).
Irineo introduced me to Jonny, a friendly, curious and engaging man my age along with several member of his family. We talked about Che Guevara, food (a favourite Bolivian topic!) and the beauties of Bolivia. Jonny was especially enthusiastic about his home country after living abroad in Brazil for a while: “You only get to really appreciate Bolivia, when you have been outside it,” he affirmed. Something I had to agree with.
Whilst we had been chatting, groups of young boys had been steadily filing in and saying prayers in front of a colourful sculpture in the corner. Behind them elderly neighbours watched approvingly. I wandered over to see that the colourful sculpture called a mesa, a cage full of fruits, t’antawawas (bread in shape of children), coloured-sugar sculptures of vases, a whole roasted goat and several rabbits. It was covered in an elaborate weave of purple and black streamers, feathers, decorated branches, a cross and the names of the family’s deceased grandparents.
It marked death, yet was the ultimate symbol of abundance and bountifulness. It was also clearly about sharing and generosity: After praying the boys would take away some of the goodies in rucksacks, whilst all the adults were plied with never-ended plates of food and chicha (fermented maize drink).
I read later that the food was collected together to honour the dead, to provide dead souls with food and drink that they enjoyed, and to call on the past family members to be present with the families. Like events I joined last year, its traditions are largely pre-Catholic and involve much more celebration than mourning.
I decided I couldn’t exclude Juliette from the celebrations, so we borrowed a car from Jonny’s brother in law, Richard. Thankfully he didn’t drive us as he was very obviously suffering from a hangover. He also seemed strangely fixed on migrating to Russia – not one of Bolivian’s top migration destinations – and not a country I could advise him on having being there when the Soviet Union dictatorship hadn’t yet been replaced by the Putin one.
We persuaded Juliette to leave some beans cooking on the fire and come with two temporary daughters (four and eight years old) we have been looking after for a week. Eva with her long beautiful black hair tied in a french braid and her younger sister Jessie, eyes sparkling, both excitedly jumped into the car. We were soon back in the house, with more plates of food in our laps, chicha and a sickly-sweet concoction of red wine and coca-cola. Stuffed already, I was rather over-generous to the dog with my rabbit and full of blessings to Pachamama (mother earth) with my coca-vino.
At 3pm and after many tutumbas (shell-like cup) of chicha, we made our excuses and headed back home, crashing onto our beds in a festive siesta slump. Late afternoon, I woke up and half-considered going in to work for a few hours in my office in a nearby town, but I remembered that I had promised to walk with Irineo and his wife Doña Elsa to the cemetary. So as shadows started to lengthen and the hot sun started to cool we headed to El Paso. The golden sunlight and the sense of human warmth that lay unspoken between us was only spoilt by the fact the lane acts as both the rubbish tip and the sewage exit for nearby villages.
It was obvious as we got near to the cemetary. The lane filled with people, the lazy-afternoon atmosphere quickened. Soon we were upon a fair, tents cooking up fried pork, ladling out beer and chicha to drunk campesinos, and pumping out cumbia music. Children swarmed excitedly between legs, their voices bubbling across the air. Eva and Jessie stirred from their langorous stupor, bodies alert to the bombardment of sounds and smells.
Just beyond the fair, we entered the cemetary. But the atmosphere didn’t change or dim, it sharpened. The cemetary was crammed with people, hemmed in around graves like families on a picnic in a British park. Each family had food, drink, flowers laid out, hampers of bounty next to the grave stone. Packs of scruffy excited boys laden down with bags of goodies worked out if they could cram in one more mound of fruits and bread by praying at a stranger’s graveside. Brass band players, pockets bulging with coins, played peoples’ favourite tunes, none of which sounded like a funeral dirge or the last call.
As dust and dusk mingled, the sun glowed red on the ridge of mountains behind. We headed over to a corner that seemed to be the Callachulpa corner, bumping into neighbours and obliging a couple with a recitation of the Lord’s prayer, which was the only prayer Juliette and I could repeat together.
Then as the last swirls of colour leaked from the sky, we miraculously found a taxi at the cemetary gates and headed back home. After a little food, we watched a film on Juliette’s laptop with the girls propped up against us. Half-way through the film, Jessie let go of her wakefulness, drifting and falling into a deep sleep on my lap. Her slowly rising and falling chest and peaceful face, a reflection of a good day.