Thursday, February 10, 2011

Aiquile, Bolivia

This is a snapshot of a few days of my journey here in Bolivia. I am not resuming this long defunct blog, but as a lot of people have asked for updates I thought this would be the most central place to put a long update. If after reading this you are curious as to what a charango is, check Google :) Enjoy!

I arrived in Aiquile about 9:30 one night. Plans made in transit
involving camping behind a pile of rocks or looking for the first
friendly looking family were thrown away when the bus dropped me off
in front of a hostel which reluctantly accepted me after I promised to
only stay for one night. As I spoke to the owner from my second floor
room I saw a rat run along the wall behind him and knew that I
wouldn't be staying more than one night even if he wanted me. Despite
the lukewarm welcome, I was happy to have a bed and a door - everything
else could wait for tomorrow.

I awoke early the next day eager to have a look around the town which
I knew absolutely nothing about other than their reputation for being
the finest charango makers in all of Bolivia. This is a place far off
the track of the usual travelers coming to Bolivia, so the usual
information (basic map, recommended accommodations, transportation
options) was not available. What information I had came from friends
in Paraguay who had previously worked in Bolivia. My first job was to
find a more permanent place to stay.

I walked up and down the main street, circled through side streets,
and discovered a number of hostel options - all full. As it turned
out, the first week the community was celebrating the festival of
their patron saint. Because of that, the hostels were booked up not by
wondering 20'somethings from Europe but by traveling Bolivians.
Finally I found a place that offered me about all I could hope for at
that point: a bare mattress on the floor of an empty room. The guy at
the desk said that if I waited a room might come available in the
afternoon. Satisfied, I dropped my bags by the mattress and went
searching for signs of the reason I came, charangos.

I had been told that I could find a charango museum, with a sculpture
of the worlds largest charango nearby. I easily found the museum,
which was locked tight. It took maybe an hour of waiting, asking
people, and eventually going to the municipality building before I
found somebody with a key to let me into the museum. The museum was
small, but interesting if you appreciate charangos. Being an aspiring
charango appreciator, I nodded my head and frowned appropriately,
taking pictures of the more interesting designs. All of the charangos
displayed there are the winners of their respective categories from
the yearly charango festival which happens in October or November.
Since it's hard to fill an entire large room with small musical
instruments, half of the space was taken up by Incan artifacts from
the area. I almost missed one of the more interesting, and recent,
historical displays: photos from the 1990's earthquake which
demolished most of the city. The two guys who came to let me into the
museum informed me that if I want to buy a charango I had better come
back during the festival, otherwise I should go find Javier Perez. I
took a detour leaving the museum to have a look at the charango
sculpture. The girl at the hostel had assured me that it was really
quite large, so I had high hopes. It lived up to it's reputation. This
charango statue is more than likely the largest charango statue in the
entire world, as I cannot imagine why anybody would want to build a
bigger one. I took some pictures to prove I had been there and moved

Though it was almost lunch time I followed the directions to Javier
Perez' house. After asking a couple of people to make sure I was at
the right place I was disappointed to see that Javier's was closed and
locked. Figuring that he was just closed for lunch I took the hint and
walked back towards my hostel looking for a diner. I found a likely
looking place and enjoyed an 'almuerzo' to the sounds of the
ever present TV set which is always tuned to that which you least want
to hear.

An almuerzo in Bolivia is an enormous and cheap meal made up of
several courses. First you will get a big bowl of whatever the soup of
the day happens to be. It's usually good and hot with finely chopped
vegetables, a few potatoes and a couple of chunks of meat (what kind
of meat I have yet to figure out). More fancy almuerzos will come with
a salad during the first course as well. After you finish the soup,
your server will bring you a plate of the main course. This is any of
the numerous typical Bolivian dishes. They will always have potatoes
in some form, some rice or noodles, and a big piece of meat. If you
can finish this place (and I have only done it once) you will
sometimes be rewarded with a small desert. So far deserts have
included crema de frutas (creamed fruit?) and an ice cream bar.

After lunch I retired to my bare mattress for a good long siesta.
After waking up and gathering my senses, I was happily informed that a
room had become available. After moving my things I went back into the
courtyard where the guy at the desk was waiting to tell me about the
big event of the week: the patron saint festival. He said that if I
went out onto the main road and followed the stream of people heading
outside of town I would get to see a great bull fight. Excited to see
my first bull fight I pocketed my camera, put on my least ostentatious
shirt, and joined the crowd.

This is what I saw, upon arriving.

A large rocky hill overlooked a valley with a large ring made of
crudely tied together wood. The hill was dotted with clusters of
people sitting for a view of the action from above. Looking at them,
in their colorful traditional clothes I could almost imagine that it
wasn't the year 2011. Walking down the hill to the action, I delicious
'street meat' being cooked by plump ladies covered in shawls and
ponchos. They had more international things like hamburgers (always
with corn and a fried egg), as well as fried meats that came with a
plate of corn and potatoes. For a snack, I tried some fried bread that
came with a generous spoonful of honey poured on top. Chicha
(fermented corn alcohol) was sold out of plastic buckets with coconut
cups. These are not city folks. They are hard people from the country
whose bodies are shaped by the elements. The older people almost look
like the rocks amongst which they live. Public sanitation has not
reached places like this, and people took care of their bodily needs
wherever they could find an empty corner. As I mentioned, the fence
and bleachers was put together in a very crude way, planks of wood and
logs tied together by wire and raw hide. Noticing this (and taking a
picture for proof) I felt a little nervous standing near it. The
action inside the circle was focused on the bulls. One by one, a bull
was let into the large field where it was taunted by teenagers in
trees and chased by men on horses. This wasn't a bull fight, it was a
bull tormenting party. Looking at the spectators one might assume them
to be watching an exciting sporting event, when in reality they were
just hoping to see the unlucky bull be provoked into a charge. Several
times while I watched a spectator was injured, once one of the men
riding a horse was thrown off and walked away with bleeding from his
head. During this entire event, giggling children were pelting girls
with water balloons (in anticipation of Carnival), and loud fireworks
were shot off at regularly irregular intervals. The "fight" ended as
the sun began to set, and as my patience began to wear thin. The crowd
streamed back into town, or back into the hills, to find dinner and a
bed. I did the same.

The next day I was eager to make progress on my search for a real
charango craftsman. I spent all morning walking the streets. My first
lead, Javier Perez, seemed to have moved away or at least left for the
week because I found no change to the closed and shuttered condition
of his house the three times I walked past it during the day. I seemed
to hit a wall with my charango mission, and confused as to why it was
so difficult to find an artisan in a town known even on the internet
as making high quality charangos, I decided to look into travel
options back to Sucre from where I had come. To my dismay, I learned
that a bus would only be available Friday night (it was Friday) and
Sunday night. Not wanting to arrive back in Sucre late Sunday night
where I had planned to watch the Superbowl, I reluctantly purchased the
ticket for Friday night. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I
could skip the bus if I found what I was looking for. I spent the rest
of the afternoon asking people and walking the streets. I tried not to
be disappointed, but when the most common response I got was "come
back in 9 months" it was hard to have much hope of a successful
conclusion to my trip to Aiquile.

Thus ended my trip to Aiquile: The Charango Capital of the World. The
mountain town known everywhere for having skilled charango artisans,
but unfortunately no charango sellers of any form. The next day, after
I was back in Sucre, I stopped by a music store which sold charangos
which I had previously passed without a second though. I asked the
lady working about her charangos mentioning that I had just come from
Aiquile. She just laughed and said, "yes, nobody goes there to buy
charangos... they are all transported to larger cities to be sold in

Thus, I learned what can happen when you leave the beaten path of the
"tourist trail." I will probably buy my charango in a big city when I
near the end of my trip, and my dreams of meeting a master craftsman
and learning the finer points of the charango art will probably remain
dreams. At least I got a taste of Bolivian life not often seen by
travelers. That alone probably made the trip worthwhile and the story
worth telling.

And now, I continue.



Jasper said...

Funny and interesting to read! Maybe I should visit a Bolivian village too :)

Jim said...

Gracias por la actualizada. Si mal no recuerdo, Bolivia es donde Butch Cassidy y el Sundance Kid fueron asesinados por Ășltimo, en un tiroteo. Recuerde que la pelĂ­cula con Robert Redford y Paul Newman.