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see also "A desert in mid-Atlantic"




"The arctic in the tropics"


a travel document
by E J Jefferies.
early 1978.

On Monday 10 October 1977 I set out from La Paz, with Ingeniero Reynaldo Castanon of the Rural Electrification Institute, to visit the village of Ulla Ulla which is 220 km north-west of La Paz (Bolivia) as the crow flies, 300 km by road, and about 5 km from the Peruvian border.

Ulla Ulla is a village of less than 500 inhabitants set in a plain about 25 km x 25 km ringed by the mountains of the Cordillera Real, north of Lake Titikaka. The village is 4320 m (14,200 ft) above sea level and the peaks of the mountains go up to about 7000 m (23,000 ft). The snow line in October is at about 5000 m (16,500 ft).

The plain is slightly undulating with a general slope gently westwards to the Rio Suchos at the Peru border. Most of it is water-logged, with standing water, peat bogs, and an occasional stream. The whole area is above the tree line; there are no bushes and no grass, but a complete cover of mosses up to about 6 inches thick. In October the temperature on the plain ranges from 0 degrees C at night to 20 degrees C.; in July the night temperature goes down to minus 20 degrees C.

The whole economy of the area is based on grazing Alpaca herds whose wool is sheared and sold once a year. In addition to the people in the village, there are maybe another 500 living in scattered houses all over the plain. All of these people, and the villagers, spend most of the daylight hours walking around the plain with their Alpaca in herds of 20-100.

The Journey.

Starting at 8 am in a Nissan Patrol Jeep, we first climbed out of the La Paz city basin at 3600 m (12,000 ft) up onto the Altiplano at 4100 m (13,500 ft) to the airport and the new industrial area. From there a new tarmac highway heads north along the east side of lake Titikaka for about 150 km. Beyond that point an earth road winds up and down through the mountains to the last "town", Escoma, at about 250 km, making about 3 hours driving from La Paz. The remaining 50 or 60 km is over really rough mountain tracks taking another 3 hours. At its highest point the road gets to about 4500 m (15,000 ft), not quite up to the snow line.

About an hour before we reached Ulla Ulla we overtook an open 10-ton truck loaded with goods and people and including a Silver Band. A little later we passed another Silver Band sitting by the roadside, also waiting to join the truck. This combined load reached the village about half an hour after we did.

The Fiesta.

Immediately on arrival the truck started to disgorge its contents and within seconds the two bands were blaring away in the middle of the Plaza. Each of these bands looked, but did not sound, like Salvation Army bands, with trumpets, trombones, cornets, horns, drums and cymbals. Neither took any notice of what the other was doing or playing. A little later, a purely "indigena" band comprising about 10 sets of pan pipes of various pitches with 4 drums, appeared and set up in opposition. Each band had its own group of dancers, those attached to the Silver Bands being in elaborate costumes. One set were equipped with hobby-horse style cows, with the rider sticking up through the middle of the back like a centaur. These staged mock bull-fights with a number of matadors and torreros milling around. The other set were in elaborately embroidered costumes and masks, representing devils, angels, etc., and these performed a more stately, set-piece, type of dance. In each case the music was basically two sets of 4-bar theme endlessly repeated.

About half-an-hour of warming up by these three bands (by which time the remaining people and goods had been unloaded from the truck), I was introduced to the local padre - one of the truck's passengers - and invited to join them in the inauguration of the fiesta. We all retired across the Plaza to a house - about 10 ft x 20 ft, which is the standard construction - where the "officials" (including me) were seated at a table whilst the band leaders, "hoi polloi", and three soldiers who constitute the local "Civil Authority", crowded in where they could, including women, children and babies. As a start we were served "yungas cocktails", - consisting of orange juice and whisky. Then came a round of Peruvian champagne, then a round of red wine. From there on beer flowed like water.

Our host, Colonel Castanon (Ing. Reynaldo's father) made a long speech introducing the Padre, apparently new to the scene. It appeared that he was newly appointed to the cure and would visit the village two or three times a year from his base parish at Penas, 50 km north of La Paz, to perform marriages and christenings and to celebrate mass. The Padre then made a long speech and declared the fiesta open.

The time was now approaching 6 o'clock (sunset is at 6.30 and it's dark by 7pm.) and we all migrated again across the Plaza to where a meal was set out in another similar house. More cocktails, more champagne, more wine and more beer. Then food and beer. Just as dusk was falling, a crate containing candles and artificial flowers was brought in and distributed, one of each to everybody, and we set out in procession once around the Plaza, accompanied by the three bands in action, to the church, where the bells were tolling. here we presented the candles (still unlit) and the flowers at the altar, and immediately retired outside to watch (or join in) the dancing.

Bedtime.

By 7.30 pm it was quite dark and the temperature was nearly down to freezing. I was in my thick suit, with my leather coat, scarf and gloves, to which they had added a poncho. There is no form of heating anywhere in the village and the total supply of light amounted to two pressure kerosene lamps and half-a-dozen candles in lanterns. This absence of light was no deterrent to the bands and dancers in the Plaza, who apparently went on until nearly midnight.

The Castanons and I sat around the table indoors gossiping and drinking tea and gradually getting more and more chilled until about 8.30 when they decided it was bedtime. Reynaldo and I were allocated another little house with two iron beds, one table, one chair, to which we then retired. My bed had a thin flock mattress and six blankets, to which I added my leather coat and my suit, putting on my pyjamas over my shirt and underwear and retaining two pairs of socks. Even so, it took me a couple of hours to get my feet warm enough to go to sleep.

Tuesday.

I woke at daybreak to note that the dancing had already started again in the Plaza. However we didn't get out of bed until about 8 am. by which time the sun was already quite hot in the compound. Breakfast consisted of tea, coffee or cocoa, two boiled eggs (pigeon size) and a thoroughly dessicated roll. There is no means of baking in the village; bread is brought in occasionally from Escoma.

During the day Col Castanon made me walk about 1.5 km along the channel which brings drinking water into the village, to inspect the spring. It's a nice clean-looking spring, but the open channel runs through the area where Alpaca (and pigs) graze, so I guess it's fairly contaminated by the time it arrives. I found I could keep my breath if I walked slowly enough, but that I couldn't walk and talk at the same time. If I wanted to say anything we had to stop.

I talked to some of the leading villagers to see what they felt they needed most of in the village. Their priorities seemed to be: (1) sanitation - there isn't a lavatory anywhere in the village; (2) better means of cooking. There is no firewood available and they cook over open fires burning dried alpaca dung which they bring in from the plain. The problem of heating their houses at night didn't seem important.

Music and dancing (and drinking) went on all day again until midnight.

Wednesday.

In the morning Reynaldo Castanon took me 17 km north to look at a hot spring on the lower slope of the foothills. This discharges about one cubic metre per second of boiling water and would be ideal for central heating a town, if only there were one to make use of it.

At lunch time there was another official meal (with the usual sequence of alcoholic intake) after which I retired for a siesta. During the afternoon the Padre performed two (belated) marriages and a christening. One of the happy couples had been at the official lunch, with their 2 year old daughter. The other wife hadn't appeared; she was said to be resting to sober up for the ceremony.

At dusk we fore-gathered again and the candles and flowers were brought out again and the procession to the church repeated.

Thursday.

At breakfast time on Thursday, there was a fair scattering of drunks lying around in odd corners. One man was pouring basins of cold water over his wife's head as she sat on her doorstep, but it didn't seem to be having much effect. The fiesta was scheduled to culminate in a celebration of mass in the afternoon, but we left at 10 am so didn't see how drunk the congregation was by then.

Copyright Edward Jefferies 1978

D.Jefferies@ee.surrey.ac.uk
14th May 2006.