Published: May 4th 2011May 3rd 2011
Three hours from La Paz, three hours from altitude sickness and a capital strewn breathtakingly out at the bottom of a canyon, we find ourselves in Coroico. Coroico, where Andes and Yungas collide and reluctantly, turbulantly, agree to tolerate the opposing world of the other. Coroico, where banana and coca plantations do battle with barren grassland, where a drop of a few hundred feet sees a shift in power from the viulture to the mosquito. 'Vulture', Adri informs me, translates literally into Spanish as 'massive chicken slap to the face'. It possesses a certain ring, no?
In Coroico we awake every morning to a yawning valley punctuated by clouds seeking to scale its peaks. Willing them away, every morning we dawdle at the pace of lotus eaters into this sleepiest of mountain villages. All forms of activity seem to take place as if in a gravity reduced vacuum. Even an inter-provincial football match, perched ridiculously on the side of the mountain, is played at the pace of the Apollo 11 astronauts. When someone ill advisedly attempts a long ball that ends up hundreds of feet below, that´s it - everyone retires to the dug out. As Adri puts it - when you've lost a ball here, you've really lost a ball.
One morning we ascend out of town and to the mountain above, mist clinging to the slopes to such a degree that this could be anywhere. Rolando, our guide, passes around a pipe, and consequently the earth´s boundaries aren´t enough - stumbling behind Adri, I´ve suspended my knowledge of planetary composition (garnered from an addiction to the smooth tones of Sam Neil guiding me through the universe on UKTV History) and decided that this is one of the greener of Saturn´s deserted moons. We are entirely alone, the three of us. Time vanishes - it feels more like days than hours. A few feet above my head the coca plantations ascend into the sky itself.
And then, at a speed of either seconds or hours - I´m unsure- the mist clears, revealing to my adjusting pupils that the valleys of the Bolivian Yungas are the envy of any moon.
Rolando talks with pride about his days as Coroico´s goalkeeper, lifting up a disjointed finger as an explanation for his wistful tone. This is the first of many revelations from this man with a pointed squint and childlike step; the son of a medicine man, he washes us in a hidden waterfall, and upon our return to Coroico we are invited to dance with him at ´Club Tropicana´. In this bizarre pocket of energy, where couples dance in regimented lines with a seriousness of expression that I do my best to shatter, Rolando unravels himself. He is a radio DJ for the area, informing me with an entirely straight face that he plays strictly rave; he once fell in love with a Muslim woman whilst in Barcelona; he is now the vice-president of Coroico´s football association. Descending further and further into explosions of pride and bravado, when Adri and I look back from the door there sits an ageing man, alone, staring at the couples in their military formations. In that moment something pierces trough my alcohol numbed mind, and its like a film with a sickening twist. All that we´ve listened to may or may not be fabrication , but either way its irrelevant, because underneath the veneer of joviality there exists a barely masked sadness. Those moments provoke an unsettling sensation in observers, as if the picture that suddenly looms out of the optical illusion isn´t something you wanted to find after all. The shock when Kevin Spacey´s limp turns into a confident stride, now played out in reverse. From one clearing of mist to another.
Two scenes of religous chaos. In torrential Coroico rain I jump out of a taxi and straight into a funeral. Barricaded between rising water, blaring vehicle horns and people scurrying to batten down their stalls, four bearers struggle, buckle even , under the weight of a sodden coffin.
And now in Copacabana, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, we find the polar extreme. Descending from the tranquility of a hilltop cemetery, we unwittingly stumble into a parade for the Festival of the Cross. Women whirl their skirts and sing in front of lines of cowboy costumed men, struggling to kjeep in step under the influence of too much chuflay. Behind them comes a raucous brass band, every one of its members passionately in love with their own particular task. We join the cowboys for an instant; I remember the rain soaked coffin and feel dizzy in the face of these oscillations.