Pacific Shores From Panama – A Glimpse Of Bolivia

A handsome young Englishman came aboard to meet us, the superintendent of the railway. The same mighty arm that had smoothed our journey thus far had reached even across the lake, and, by its ministration, a special car was waiting to take us on to La Paz. It had further been kindly arranged that an engine should take this car immediately to Tiahuanaco, leaving it there until the late afternoon passenger picked it up.

The road lay across a bleak pampa of the Collao. At the end of half an hour or so we stopped at an isolated station.

Few traces of the famous ruins of Tiahuanaco appear at first sight, but upon walking about one is amazed at their great extent. Baffling indeed they remain. Even the most vivid effort of the imagination can do little toward reconstructing them. And if a learned man like Humboldt dare not venture to fathom their mysteries, and such a ripened traveller as Squier calls them the “most enigmatical upon the continent,” what guess may a mere searcher for the picturesque dare hazard? Old they are certainly, of a date far preceding the Inca period; but what they were, where and by whom quarried, and how transported to their present situation—one monolith is estimated to weigh seven hundred tons—all these are matters of pure conjecture.

Did a member of some Toltec band that wandered southward carve the curious figure that I have sketched, so strangely like those in Central America, or was the stone-cutter a native of these Andean table-lands, some artisan working out his own idea of art expression? An Aymara tradition declares that these sculptured images are the original inhabit-ants turned to stone for their wickedness by Tunupa, who was unable to reform them. The Aymaras, who, apparently, are oldest of the American peoples, have a curious account of the creation of the world. It asserts that, in the beginning, Khunu, arch-enemy of man and cause of all his troubles, froze the earth and by continued drought converted fertile plains into sterile deserts, depriving man of all that was necessary to his existence and reducing him to the level of the lower animals. But Pachacamac, creator of the world, supreme spirit and regulator of the universe, took pity upon the unfortunate human beings, and restored all that Khunu had destroyed.

Khunu’s anger, however, was again unchained, and he sent a deluge and plunged the earth into utter darkness.

The prayers of the people were heeded and answered by Inti, the sun-god, who rose from Titicaca, where his shrine stood, to bathe the earth with warmth and light. His efforts were ably seconded by Ticcihuiracocha, who came among mankind to help them, performing miracles as he went, smoothing down the mountains, lifting up the deep abysses, causing crystal waters to gush from the rocks and, above all, instilling into the human heart sentiments of piety, order, and industry. Realising that gold and silver were the fount of all corruption, he hid them in the depths of the most inaccessible regions or in the flanks of lofty mountains, and by his efforts and those of Tunupa, who followed him, mankind was restored to happiness and progress.

Such is the Aymaras’ crude account of the creation—a sort of geological allegory, Khunu representing the Glacial period, Pachacamac the restoring forces of nature, and Ticcihuiracocha the changes. of the Tertiary period.

We spent some hours wondering at the mighty stones fashioned by these Indians; at their well-cut angles, their hints of sculpture and ornament; the nicety of their joints; the size of their megaliths, and the strange, crude carvings in the museum. One quadrangular building would seem by its extent to have been a royal residence; there is a flight of monolithic steps, and there are underground passages, well-preserved doorways, and queer upright stones that resemble Alaskan totem poles. We enjoyed, too, a walk through the little modern town, some of whose houses are built of these same pre-Inca stones, and whose church portal is flanked by curious heads unearthed in the ruins.

The ride on to La Paz continues across a bleak level plateau. Half-wild cattle and groups of mules stampede at the train’s approach. Indian women, dressed in crude colours, work in the fields of quinoa, the only grain that grows upon these wind-swept punas. Aymaras in black or red ponchos, silent, aloof, wait at the stations.

If the Quichua Indian is sad, the Aymara is even sadder still, a look of concentrated melancholy resting ever upon his features. Unsocial, gloomy, whole families live together with scarcely, it would seem, a spoken word or a look of affection exchanged between them.

By many this habitual sadness is attributed to their excessive use of coca. And certainly no Aymara is ever seen without his chuspa or bag that contains this, his favourite drug, the delight, the support, and to some extent the necessity, of his life. I found it interesting to watch an Indian prepare to chew. First he makes himself as comfortable as possible, for it seems that, as in the case of opium, quiet and repose are essential to the full enjoyment of the drug. Then he takes his chuspa between his knees, and slowly, one by one, extracts the pale-green leaves, rolling them carefully to form a ball, which he chews until it ceases to emit its juice. Three or four times a day he repeats this operation, the only pleasure of his otherwise monotonous existence.

The effects of coca are varied. Taken to excess it is a terrible vice. Taken in moderation it imparts strange powers of endurance. For example, because of its anaesthetic effect upon the mucous membrane of the stomach, it deadens the pangs of hunger to such an extent that Indians under its influence have been known to work for three days without food or other nourishment of any kind. It seems also to lessen the fatigue of their long journeys afoot and give them strength to combat the effects of high altitudes.

Though known to Europeans but recently, the properties of the coca leaf, from which we make cocaine, have long been appreciated by the Andean Indians. To the Incas it was sacred, mystic. The priests chewed it during the religious ceremonies; it was burnt like incense before the shrines of the gods, and handfuls of it were thrown during sacrifice. Its leaves were put into the mouths of the dead to insure their favourable reception in the next world, a custom that persists even today. And in the mines the Indian workmen still throw it upon the veins of ore, believing it to soften the metal and render it easier to work.

The sun’s intensity had gathered up the clouds once more, and off to the westward long curtains of rain obscured the distance. At Viacha a village fete was in progress. A band was playing over by the public-house, the church was dressed with flags and green boughs, and about the station a large crowd was assembled. A train, bound southward for Oruro and the long dreary journey down to Antofagasta, the only other means of communication between La Paz and the coast, stood on the track next us. Two of its coaches were filled with soldiers in charge of German officers, whose Teuton faces and familiar grey uniforms and cloaks looked strangely out of place in these mountain solitudes.

As we left the station the great storm-clouds that had been gathering about the mountains shifted a little, drifting just enough to disclose the icy summits and snowy peaks of two of America’s greatest mountains, Illimani and Huayna Potosi. So sudden was their apparition, so amazing the grandeur of their structure, so extensive their wildernesses of snow, that our eyes never left them as we continued to approach them, appearing first on one side of the train, then upon the other. Their slopes below the snow-line were of an intense blackish blue that formed a dense, rich background to the landscape, and, to add the necessary touch to the foreground, at one point two cholos on light-brown mules with white feet came galloping along wrapped in magenta ponchos with yellow borders—a scheme of colour daring yet stunning and worthy of Zuloaga’s brush.

We knew that now we must be approaching La Paz, yet no hint of a city lay in the stony fields of this level plateau, stretching apparently unbroken to the Royal Cordillera upon the one hand and to an unlimited distance upon the other. Long trains of little donkeys, heavily laden, watched by their arrieros, and great majadas of llamas, each with its hundred-pound load, were coming from every direction across the plains, and all were trending toward a certain focal point ahead of us. But where could the city be?

The train whistled as it rounded a long curve, and suddenly, without warning, at the side of the track a great chasm opened, coming with such abruptness, so unexpectedly, that, breathless, we grasped some firm object for support.

At its far extremity Illimani, lightly wreathed with clouds, raised its glorious summit, gleaming in all the splendour of its dazzling snow-fields. To the left Huayna Potosi spread its glittering peaks and, cut into the flanks of these two giants of the Andes, seamed and scarred by glacial torrents, deeply eroded, mined by cataracts and rivers, this profound valley has been excavated by the primeval forces of nature. At its bottom, far below us, fifteen hundred feet or more, lay the city of Our Lady of Peace, La Paz, from whose slate roofs and towers a pale-blue vapour seemed to emanate as if it were offering incense at the shrine of some great god. And fittingly, for were not these two mountains, Illimani and Huayna Potosi, the Indian’s Olympus, the abode of his chief deities!

Along the precipitous walls of this abyss, white fillets of road cut zig-zags and loops, along which we could make out the donkey-trains and llamas with their horsemen and drivers crawling slowly down-ward like strings of ants.

Our steam-driven engine was now changed to one run by electricity, and our train plunged over the brink. The upper plains vanished. Steep walls gradually rose about us. The houses of the city at each turn lifted themselves nearer, and in twenty minutes we were at the station of the Bolivian capital.

Viewed from the rim at the Alto, La Paz looks flat. Upon closer acquaintance, however, it proves to be one of the hilliest cities that you can find, clinging as it does to the slopes upon both banks of the Chuquiapu, the river or rather the torrent that tears through the bottom of the valley. Its steep streets plunge down one hill only to ascend another, and in this altitude you constantly find yourselves pausing for breath. But the bright colours and gay architecture of the houses, the rather modern aspect of the clean, well-paved thoroughfares, make the city attractive to a degree, though it lacks the fine monuments and relics of the past that one finds in the Peruvian cities.

By this I do not mean to imply that there are no old palaces or churches. As a matter of fact, there are important buildings several centuries old, for La Paz was founded away back in 1549, and called “The City of Peace,” to commemorate the reconciliation between Almagro and Gonzalo Pizarro. How any man had the courage to select this site is quite beyond one’s powers of comprehension, yet the wisdom of the choice is apparent, protected as the city is by the walls of its great chasm against the bitter winds and storms that sweep this mountain world.

The principal hotel, installed in an extensive old palace surrounding two fine stone courts, overlooks one corner of the Plaza Mayor that forms the heart of the city, the centre of its activities. It is planted with pretty flower-beds and trees, semi-tropical in character, and decorated with a central monument. Fronting upon it are the handsome government buildings, a fresh new café and club, the unfinished cathedral, begun when the mines of Potosi were at the height of their activity, and the President’s Pal-ace, where a group of soldiers mount guard in smart uniforms and bright steel helmets. In it, too, stand the carriages, open vehicles, each drawn by four horses, which fact will give you some idea of the steepness of the streets. Few carts are ever seen, but pack-trains pass one constantly. Sometimes these are composed of big mules, laden with tin and ore from the great deposits of Huayna Potosi, headed by a bell-horse with red head-dress and gay pompons, and followed by the arrieros, well mounted, watchful, shouting to their beasts, now in terms of endearment, then again in curses. Next, perhaps, will come a flock of llamas, loaded with ice from the Sierra, the cold water trickling over their shaggy coats, or a long string of sure-footed donkeys carrying wood or fresh wheat from the fields, or dried sheep from the mountains, or loads of oil, two dozen bottles on either side.

Sometimes, even, these pack-trains consist of men —also true beasts of burden-carrying incredible loads. I saw, for instance, a family moving, every household article—beds, tables, wardrobes, lounges —carried on human backs up the steep streets, twelve thousand feet above the sea! Even pianos are thus moved, slung on rawhide ropes between six bearers. And again one asks one’s self, is it the coca that gives them the heart to do such work?

You may see the Indian life down at the market, which, oddly enough, reminded us in several ways of the souks of Tunis with its pale-green colonnades, through which glints of dazzling sunshine filtered; its stalls with their venders squatting cross-legged upon them, even the type of these bejewelled venders themselves, cholo women for the most part.

Of all the types of La Paz, these stout cholitas are the most characteristic. Because of the decrease of the Indian race and the apathy of the Spanish whites, who constitute only one-eighth of the entire population of the country, the future of Bolivia rests largely upon these half-breeds, who, cunning and shrewd at a bargain, have amassed much wealth.

Their women afford the evidence of this prosperity. Often distinctly handsome, their clothing is spotless. Upon their heads they wear quaint little felt hats stiffened and chalked as white as snow. Their dress, usually of some rich material, is covered, when on the street, by a great shawl whose long silken fringes sweep about their ankles, and whose folds are held in place by a handsome pin of gold, usually set with baroque pearls or emeralds, from which dangles a jointed fish, also of gold, with pearls or emeralds for eyes. Their long ear-rings match this pin and are also of gold and precious stones.

When they bend over to bargain with the seated women, they disclose their canary-coloured, high-heeled shoes, ornamented with tassels, and a few inches of tight-drawn creamy stocking veiled by the well-starched laces of innumerable petticoats that give body to their voluminous skirts.

Petticoats seem to be the great luxury of the native women of all classes. Even the poor Indians wear a dozen. When a new skirt is needed it is added on the outside, those underneath remaining just as before. As they choose only the brightest colours, the effect of these multi-coloured garments worn one above the other is often startling indeed.

On Sunday mornings the market spills over into all the adjoining streets, along whose curbstones the Indian women squat with their wares spread out upon the ground before them. And what a debauch of colour they make, brilliant as any tulip-beds in Holland! Red, green, magenta, purple, blue, crimson—all the colours of a post-impressionist—their balloon-like skirts go ambling along. No German aniline dye is too strong for them.

And through this gaudy throng the creamy spots of the cholo women and the black mantas of the Spanish ladies, who understand the distinction of their sombre attire, strike the necessary accents.

Down by San Francisco—a handsome church of the early eighteenth century, with a remarkable nave and vaulting—is another market where the Indians buy their clothes and the homespun cloths for the bags and saddle-blankets of their animals. Little stalls, where women sell laces and bits of jewelry and sandals worked with velvet appliqué, stand wedged between the buttresses of the church, and along the Calle del Mercado near by are the shops, gay with colour, where you may purchase bright ponchos and pointed caps knitted in intricate designs. In them, too, you may often see men from the Yungas, the rich tropical valley that lies below La Paz, and the principal seat of its coca cultivation —youths whose long hair, tied in queues, falls about their shoulders, and whose gay-striped ponchos conceal all else but their sturdy, bronzed legs bared to the knees.

If you wish to see the Spanish life you must go, some afternoon, across the bridge to the Alameda, where the band plays two or three times each week, and where the people promenade under the eucalypti along a broad avenue bordered by the new villas owned by the wealthier citizens of La Paz and by the members of the diplomatic corps. To judge from one or two we visited, these homes possess every modern comfort, and judging from the conversation that we heard within them, their residents indulge in most of the social pastimes that we enjoy—teas, theatre parties, riding clubs, and tennis clubs, though the high altitude is rather against all outdoor sports.

As soon as you leave the streets of the city, in any direction, you are at once confronted with the savage aspect of the country that surrounds it. Forming the continuation of each steep thoroughfare, as it were, rise the cliffs and pinnacles, coloured by mineral ores, of this forbidding valley.

Having viewed it from above at the Alto, it is well to see it from below by walking down to Obrajes, where the Chuquiapu thunders along in its mad run to the sea, mining, its way deeper and ever deeper into its stony. bed. There is a well-founded theory, I believe, that this valley of La Paz was at one time the bed of the great river that drained Titicaca, whose only outlet nowadays is the Desaguadero, that leaves the lake near Guaqui, to sink finally into Oruro’s salty plains. And certainly immense volumes of water must have poured down these gullies, and still do for that matter, after the frequent and angry rains.

As you descend, the floral life that has been so entirely absent upon the high plateaus begins to bloom again. Purple lupin and black-eyed susans, wild roses and calceolaria, with their beautiful slipper-shaped flowers, mingle with masses of broom and geranium, while the heads of tall pampas grasses nod along the river-bank. Pepper-trees and willows shade the occasional dwellings.

At the roadside an Indian sits making the pastoral reed-pipes that all the natives play, and the syrinx, also of reeds, such as the great god Pan played in Arcadia. Llamas and donkey-trains, climbing to the capital, stumble up the rocky road. High above hangs the Capilla, a chapel, as its name implies, to which we climbed another afternoon to enjoy the wonderful panorama from a belvedere near by, that overhangs a chaos of valleys and mountains, chain upon chain, culminating in Illimani’s dazzling peak that rears its head 21,000 feet above the sea.

Finally, in our descent, we reached the public square at Obrajes, and were just admiring the gardens that seemed quite tropical in their exuberance after the rugged plants of the upper plains, when a terrific hail-storm swept upon the valley—thunder, lightning, and torrents of rushing water.

In a few moments all the country was awash. We took refuge in an inn close by, whence we telephoned to a friend in the city to send down a cab. A long wait, during which we whiled away the time by watching the life of this wayside tavern, finally brought us the usual four-horse vehicle, whose leather top was filled with hail-stones as big as birds’ eggs.

The storm had abated, however, as quickly as it had begun, and as we climbed upward in the waning light the clouds lifted; the crags and castellated pinnacles grew rosy; a shepherd’s lonely flute, as in Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” lifted the plaintive voice of its yaravi; the birds resumed their songs, and all nature seemed to give thanks for its deliverance from the storm.