A Headless Mountain, A Phantom Army, and Wet Handshakes: Trip To Tocaña, an Afro-Bolivian Community
You’re all privileged. You know that? It’s a real privilege that you can be here in Tocaña. And if you don’t take advantage of it then you’re all “jodidos!”
Pulga’s bedroom feels homely despite serving as a storage room for our group’s 11 day-packs. I lean back on his small couch; its wood and wire frame digs into my back. By my outstretched feet are several beer bottles, work shoes, and a layer of dust over loose tiles. Around me, the walls are adorned with shelves of books, stacks of newspapers and magazines, rusty horseshoes, skeleton keys, numerous posters of Afro-Bolivian events, a large picture of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X, and a Che Guevara hat. On the wall ahead hang many faded portraits of Afro-Bolivians—“El Pared de los Invisibles,” Pulga called it. Even underneath their dusty glares, I can hardly stay awake.
After a few minutes, with Pulga’s dire warning about being (figuratively) jodido in my head, I pull myself off the couch and outside to the sunlight.
“Hey! This is my colleague Oscar! He’s an anthropologist!” It’s Pulga, our guide for the day in Tocaña, bringing in tow a thin middle aged man and yelling at me in his characteristically stout voice. We shake hands. Oscar’s palms are soaking wet. I turn my wince into a smile. “Hola. Mucho gusto,” I say while surreptitiously wiping my hand dry. Hmph. Who goes into a handshake with their hands dripping? I think wistfully of the nap I’m missing out on.
“We’re building a library of newspaper clippings there,” Oscar said, snapping my attention back to the present. Oscar points down to a small brick building a little ways down the mountain slope.
“It’s going to be all about Afro-Bolivians because there are very few places that collect news articles about them. I’m working on it with Pulga. We went to university together. He’s a sociologist.”
Oscar has much to say. One mention of “the mountain over there” and he sets off on a discourse.
“Uchumachi—there’s no translation that I know of. Legend says Uchumachi used to be a gigantic deity. One day, another god beheaded him in a fight. That’s why the summit of the mountain is so flat. Next to Uchumachi in the valley, there’s a lone hill amongst the other tall mountains—that’s where the head is. Of course, this is just a legend, but it’s very fun to recount. Nowadays many farmers hike up to the summit to perform ceremonies and rituals for good fortune.
“If you’re here on October 20—that’s the biggest festival in Coroico. It’s the date the city was founded. A couple centuries ago, there was a bellicose tribe not far away that invaded the people here. They surrounded the town. During the siege, the townspeople prayed to the Virgin, who brought down a divine illusion of a massive army that terrified and scared away the invaders.”
Oscar goes on, describing in detail the bizcochuelo—a type of sponge cake they make during celebrations. He loses me halfway through a very technical description of the apparatus used to make the alcohol used for the cake. It definitely included various tubes and lots of boiling.)
I’m entirely awake now. There is a vitality in Oscar’s stories and I am fully engaged in the moment. How was I so sleepy 20 minutes ago? I must have forgotten how interesting Tocaña was. How could I fall asleep during the only few hours I’d ever spend in an Afro-Bolivian community on the slopes of Los Yungas?
As the beautiful, dry afternoon ticks on, our group dances the Saya (the traditional dance of Afro-Bolivians) with the locals, swinging around to tunes of pride, heritage, and struggle. To watch them dance and dance among them. This, truly, is a privilege.
I think of all the small facets of life here that we’ve had the privilege of having the slightest encounter with, of all the “stories” that have played out incompletely around me: Pulga and Jhonny’s anger when they saw a section of the forested slope slashed and burned– “What are you going to build here?” Pulga roared, “The Hotel Bolivia?”; the little uniformed school children led by a boy wielding his makeshift sword and shield; another little boy who, bless his heart, managed to pull off the impressive feat of falling from a tricycle multiple times during our group discussion. I remember the stacks of newspapers and magazines in Pulga’s room. I’d assumed Pulga simply was that guy who never threw away his newspapers.
There’ve been too many times that I’ve entered a community and judged them for something trivial like one person’s wet handshake (or for spelling Johnny as “Jhonny”), instead of being aware of the present moment and learning as much as I can.
I also realize that I’m thinking too much, and that there’s an entire dance going on and that I won’t enjoy it if I’m pondering the philosophical intricacies of stories in the present moment. Even the wide-eyed chubby-cheeked three year old wearing a “moto-club-1972” t-shirt is tapping his foot to the beat while holding Oscar’s hand.
Before we pile into the Trufi to leave, I make a frantic trip to the bathroom. As I sprint from the bathroom to the trufi, hands still soaking wet after washing them, Oscar appears in front of me. His right hand is outstretched. “Chao Miguel, que te vaya bien.” Without any time to dry my hands, we shake. Our eyes meet for a split second—his slightly puzzled and mine (I imagine) very guilty—before I hop on the last seat in the Trufi and slide the door closed.
One important piece of Bolivian culture is reciprocity. We always return any favors we receive.