Chapter One: Mist on the Mirror

I arrived in Kaata via the fairly tortuous bus route from La Paz, the first of many times I was to get up before dawn and sit in that sticky, cast iron frame rattling over unpaved roads for eight hours. Rising up out if the crater in which the city sits, we were soon running along Lake Titicaca, sapphire sea of the desert Altiplano, the high plain at nearly four thousand metres above sea level. We stopped at seven and had soup in Achacachi, where shacks sell stacks of shiny commodities, and country bound passengers buy bread for rural kin and carbonated drinks in bubble-like bottles. Sun shines from the corrugated metal roofs in high altitude clarity.

After breakfast we rise up over the Cordillera Real seeing, stretched out in a curving arc above the massing clouds, vast white peaks six thousand metres high and more, the tips of immense icebergs with their roots in the Amazon jungle. Great nests of whipped-up stone they are over the sparse altiplano; majestic and hard this landscape, as the lake is cold and salty. Coming over the high pass, the recently dug road descends the eastern flank of the mountains towards the jungles, winding through misty mustard coloured pastures for many miles before we reach the lands of the Qollohuaya, heralded by herds of alpacas and llamas and washed away irrigation channels around streams, speaking of a civilization of experts in extracting a living from the landscape.

The Qollahuaya are well-known as healers who once would walk up and down the Andes, the spine of the South American continent, curing sickness and misfortune wherever they went. Some of their villages, set into the side of steep mountains, are specialised in making plant medicines, and others in divination techniques, such as throwing coca leaves. They cure mental, spiritual and social ills, not separating these from ailments of the physical body. Once part of the Inca Empire, the Qollohuaya speak its language, Quechua, as well as their own, which for centuries has survived through secret ceremonial uses. They appear, afforded the honour of carrying the Inca’s palanquin for their medical prowess, in Guaman Poma de Ayala’s wonderful illustrated letter to the king of Spain. Written between 1600 and 1615, this 1,189-page epistle explained with text and illustrations the superior social organisation under the Inca Empire, and recommended the King affect a return to it. Sadly, it was never delivered.

Weary, we descend at last the hairpin curves of the steep road to Charazani into a whitewashed square of trees and colonial wrought iron balconies on adobe houses. It is a tiny town of a few hundred families, where a few colonial families have modest haciendas, farms worked by Indians, extracting a landlord’s tithe. The valleys are farmed intensely, terraced from top to bottom, and the remaining land owned and worked by peasant families in smallholdings, largely for their subsistence. Charazani is distinguished from the surrounding villages by this veneer of colonial power, and is still the seat of regional government and trade. The next day I would make my way up to the Indian village or ayllu of Kaata, where I intended to work.

I checked in at a hotel on the corner of the square, several stories high, with all the comforts of tiled rooms, sheets, and resinous wood furniture, comparatively luxurious for the remote campo. These days there are contractors and NGO workers passing through Charazani sometimes. The hotel is run by doña Ruth, the youngest of a large family. Whilst her many siblings moved to La Paz, the capital, she remained to take care of her aging father, who shuffles in eager to see the new guest. In his nineties, he is joyous, chatting, artlessly charming. They are delighted to hear I am an anthropologist, and tell me of the account of local customs and traditions written by their great-uncle, Enrique Oblitas, The Qollahuaya. I have of course heard of it; it gives a wonderfully thorough description of the region and its people. Despite being of the hacienda class, this uncle took an interest in the Indians, and was able to record thousands of rituals, songs and ceremonies, many of which have now vanished.

It is not only through their uncle’s account that their family name is familiar to me, I eventually recall. A few years after Oblitas wrote his work, an American anthropologist called Joseph Bastien arrived. As he recounts in his classic ethnography, Mountain of the Condor, he and his wife stayed with this same family. It was at that time a much simpler house, and they were offered accommodation on straw mattresses in a second floor attic. In those days there was no bus: Bastien and his wife crossed that endless eastern flank of the Andes in the back of an open truck named Yawar Mallku, squashed in amongst squatting families and comestibles. They had to stop three times and dig Yawar Mallku out of mud. Comparatively I had nothing to complain about.

It was on the trail of this Bastien that I had come here. His beautiful and intuitive ethnography of the people of this mountain and the animate sentient landscape they inhabit drew me to this region specifically. Originally in the Andes as a Christian missionary, Bastien came to be fascinated by the native religions he encountered. He left the church to study anthropology at Cornell, learnt Quechua, and came to Kaata to do fieldwork. I loved his fascination with matters of religion and ritual, and how the Qollahuaya use the landscape for healing. The draw of his book for me was also its style; unlike many ethnographies, his is written in a dreamy and appealing fashion.

My journey was eased by the hot springs, naturally occurring thermal waters just below the town, which the municipality has marshalled into a swimming pool and really hot showers. Even from the high terrace on top of the hotel it was hard to see more than what was immediately around me, encased in mist. This being my first visit I had not yet any sense of the shape of the landscape, of where rose up the mountains or deepened the valleys. It was soon dark, and I dined in a little front room across the square from the hotel where three generations of ladies reheated lunch in large pots, serving soup and then a little meat on mountains of warm rice and potatoes while I watched the national news at a plastic topped table. The beer turned out to be alcohol free malt, much to my dismay.

In the morning I managed to persuade doña Ruth to find me some slightly stale bread and coca leaf tea for breakfast, before the long walk I envisioned up to Kaata. We were chatting across the table when the door from the courtyard swung open and to my absolute amazement and sheer disbelief, there entered a complex of features deeply familiar, though at the same time intensely surprising. Long tangled brown hair beneath a felt hat, slender legs in combat trousers, a strong aquiline nose, and dark eyes, oriental but rounded at the edges, looking at me in wonder. It was unbelievable and inassimilable: Dick, who I had last seen two years before, when he drove away from my house in Liverpool, ending several years of near constant companionship. We had had no communication since. I knew he was in Bolivia through mutual friends, and had expected over the course of a couple of years we might run into one another, maybe in a café in the capital – yet here! In Charazani, where no one ever visits, and on my first day too. We stared at each other, momentarily transported into another world, a dream state, by this strange turn of events, then we were hugging violently, and staring at one another again.

Dona Ruth evinced not the smallest surprise at this, as we considered, incredible coincidence, when it was explained. A Bolivian friend to whom I later recounted the incident waved his hand impatiently, “Stuff like that happens here all the time”, he said, dismissively. We were in a world now of meaningful coincidences, where human beings were moved at the hands of more powerful forces, buffeted about the world on tides and currents of fate, summoned summarily into the lives of one another as if reality had the texture of a dream. Probability was powerless to rate such a happening, indeed it seemed to hold little sway in this landscape at all.

Surprise, Tim Ingold tells us, is for those who think they can map the future in knowable terms. Those who believe in a world alive with forces beyond human knowledge and control – animists – exist by contrast in a constant state of wonder. Wonder is better equipped to accommodate change: spirits might emerge from seemingly solid entities like mountains to terrify, torment or transform. Matter, like time, is in an animist view mutable and constantly coming into being from moment to moment,.

Dick was travelling with a Swedish girl working for an NGO which had afforded her the car, along with an artist and his girlfriend from La Paz. Incredibly they had all come up here for a weekend’s holiday- very few tourists ever make it out to Charazani. The city dwellers interpreted the incident through a more Latino frame, delighted at the naughtiness of Dick running into an ex when he now had another girlfriend in La Paz. We all endeavoured to carry on as best we might,. They were on their way around the valley to Curva, where there was a hut for visitors, and offered me a lift to Kaata en route. I sat squashed in the back seat of the now overcrowded vehicle as we made our way out of Charazani, crossed the river carving out the centre of the valley, and rounded the other side to climb upwards again within the narrow circumference of visibility afforded by the heavy mist. Dick turned to offer me a cigarette, of a native brand of dark jungle tobacco. The name on the packet was Casino, which we both knew in his native Italian meant trouble. It reminded me of summers spent on the slopes of Sicily, and anarchist meetings he’d taken me to when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. At this moment the car swerved violently, and he moved with its motion on the dirt track, managing to manoeuvre us towards the earth mountainside rather than into the misted depths of the crevice to our right. Skidding to a halt, we jumped out to see what was the matter- one of the back tyres had burst. In moments he was grappling with a jack, jamming stones into the muddy mass of the track to hold the vehicle up whilst he fitted the spare. On letting the jack down however the spare, somewhat deflatingly, turned out also to be flat.

Prospects of rescue up here seemed slim, yet from the mist behind us emerged a white 4×4 emblazoned with the words ‘Ambulance of Ayllu Kaata’. The men riding in the cab and on its open back jumped out, taking in our white features with an air of amusement, and nimbly began to help us, joking with one another in Quechua as they did so. They had an antiquated hand pump with which, shoring the car up with yet more stones, we were able to inject a little more life into the tyre, enough for the company to make it back down the hill.

We thanked them, and Dick got out the ceremonial Ceibo, the neat alcohol used to toast the spirits of the landscape. It is considered to be these spirits who throw travellers off or keep them on the road, causing accidents or allowing their safe arrival. The mountains are living beings, conscious deities with their own ideas and humours. We should thank them for their mercy in merely toying with us over the tyre incident, and engaging this handy rescue. At this stage I went along with drinking to the mountains not because they were to me anything sentient – how could they be sentient when they were simply stone? – but to comply with cultural norms, led by a sense of curiosity into how these people understood the world. It is considered essential for drivers to take a capful of alcohol too, spilling a few drops on the earth for the spirits before knocking back the rest and proceeding with no further precaution against accident whatever, letting the momentum carry them down one track narrow dirt roads, blasting the horn at every blind bend to assert precedence over anything coming up the other way.

I was able to explain my situation to the men, who loaded me up into the front of the ambulance with them. One of them, Ermeglio, was as I later found out the Consejal, the intermediary between Kaata’s own authorities and local government, representing the community on the council in Charazani. He performs his duties with a somewhat ironic set to his jaw, mouth curled as though knowing life to be less serious than everyone is making it out to be. He enquired closely about my reasons for coming to the village, watching me shrewdly. I explained that I had read a wonderful book, written 40 years ago, by a man called Joseph Bastien, who had lived in Kaata. Did they know of him? Sebastien, yes, he was remembered. Yet they had never seen the book he wrote about their village. This surprised me- it is considered a major work of Andean ethnography, and is well known internationally, yet not by the sons and daughters of those who were its main characters and sources.

The central idea of Bastien’s book is that the Kaateños consider the mountain they live on to be a living body, a deity of which mountain lakes are the eyes, set in amongst the high pastures of the herders at its head. The village of Kaata and its fields are its stomach and liver, producing potatoes, the staple crop. They were the centre of the ‘vertical economy’ which connected the communities at different ecological levels of the mountain in exchange. Potatoes were swapped for meat from the herders and warmer weather crops, coca and maize, from the lower villages near Charazani at the ‘feet’ of the mountain. It was in fact shortly after we had crossed the river at the head of the valley onto the feet of this animate Mount Kaata that our car had come into difficulty, I now realise.

How the modern world would affect this animate landscape, with its neat systems of agriculture and trade, was central to my curiosity about life here. Did the enchanted world Bastien described still exist? I had framed my interest in the area in terms of climate change, which I suspected would not be seen as something merely affecting the weather, but would have wider significance for the whole shape of time and space; the cosmos the villagers inhabit. I had learnt from Bastien of rituals that could talk to the elements, inducing the rains to come or clouds to clear. I knew the weather was not remote from human activity, but consisted of conscious elements the villagers can communicate with. It is the ancestral dead in the Andes who send the rains, for example, in response to the living toasting them with alcohol. If they should cease to water the crops on time, how would this be construed in terms of relations with them?

I explained my mission to Ermeglio, saying that Bastien had written much about the mountain and rivers and ceremonies to them, and I wanted to see if these were changing now. He appreciated this was a careful construction, understanding I was asking about his peoples’ thoughts on the elements and landscape as well as their changes, and that I was simultaneously trying to make my research understandable. I asked him about the glaciers, which on a clearer day we would have seen crowning the mountains we wove around as we drove- were they disappearing?

“Yes”, responded Ermeglio, “the mountain is unswelling [desinchandose]”. This word is usually used to describe a wound which is ‘going down’ and weeping. Such a fluid and corporal way of describing something seemingly solid and stony struck me, and seemed to hint that the idea of the mountain as a living body still had some currency.

By the time we landed on the main street in Kaata, we had begun to trust one another. Yet, another test.

“Where would you like to go to first?” Asked Ermeglio. “Shall I take you to the Mallku (leader), or would you like to start working right away?”

“I’d like to speak to the Mallku first”, I said. My aim this initial visit was to find out whether the community would like to be part of my research. I had the highest respect for their self-governing autonomous structures: Kaata like other Andean ayllus is ruled by a committee who take roles of authority for a year at a time, and which every adult male is expected to hold in turn to be a full community member. This was the attitude Ermeglio was looking for- a stereotypically arrogant westerner might have assumed they could simply walk in without asking. If I gained the authorities’ permission, I would then study the language spoken there, Quechua, before returning to start fieldwork proper.

“I can’t speak Quechua yet”, I added, half ashamed.

“Well here it’s pure Quechua”, Ermeglio replied, looking straight at me. In time I found out many villagers in fact speak Spanish, but he had his own reasons for emphasising the indigenous-ness of the community to me at this stage. Duly he went to fetch the Mallku, which means Condor, the Lord of the Heights. It was a feast day, and he was over at the football pitch, a square flattened space of land likely a ceremonial Incaic site, watching the young men play a neighbouring village. I waited on the main street. The wet earth road was a rich coffee colour, and lined with stone walls before the shadowed outlines of houses, the spaces before them flourishing with flowering plants, low trees hung with delicate lily shaped flowers shaded from yellow to flame red, sharp and sudden against the mist.

The Mallku, Atanacio, soon appeared. He had a round, amiable face, eyes sharp under a pink chullu or cap with ear flaps, striped with designs in all colours of the rainbow, as was his scarlet poncho. I explained to him I had come to ask if the village would like me to carry out a study on climate change. I explained this would involve me hanging about there for the next year or so, chatting to them, and helping in the fields and tasks of everyday life, if they were interested.

“Yes”, said the Mallku vigorously, “We’re very interested in climate change. Look at this” – he indicated a fragment of plastic on the ground beside him- “the contamination is everywhere! And batteries are worse! They tell us each one contaminates ten square metres of ground. We have tried to collect them all, but…”

From this I had my first glance at what climate change in Kaata might mean. It took me a while to fully absorb what the Mallku had said, yet as I walked back down the mountain later, I began to see that ‘climate change’ seemed to be related to the modest ‘contamination’ these villagers were themselves producing. I had wondered how they would deal with a western discourse that would frame them as victims of processes controlled by others far away, who apparently had a greater influence over the mountain environment they inhabited then they themselves. Climate change seemed to have become a localised phenomenon, perceived in terms of the mountain and its inhabitants almost as if it were closed off from the outside world.

Atanacio surprised me by describing climate change in terms of what we would consider its causes, ‘contamination’. Climate change itself, to the western mind, is the effects of these human actions. In Kaata however it is the contaminating consumer waste, and the changing lifestyles which causes it to be there. Science establishes causal relationships between, in this case, human activity, or culture on the one side and nature on the other. Climate scientists, or at least 97.4% of them, assert a causal relationship between human actions and changes in the climate. They observe that humans produce contamination that causes nature to be changed. For years this has been contested by those who hold that climate change is ‘natural’, emanating from nature and affecting humans. The perspective of Kaata takes away the line separating humans from the natural world, and looks at them as seamlessly and continuously interacting. It does not separate them using causality, but sees everything as coming into being together.

In Kaata climate change is an entire phenomenon, a changing of everything at the same time in inseparable ways. Here the world is understood in systems, as I would learn, and climate change describes the change from one type of system to another. Plastic rubbish is a new thing: a few years ago everything consumed on the mountain could simply ploughed back into the land to make it more fertile. The fragments of waste Atanacio indicated are eloquent of a systemic transformation, of people buying goods from the city rather than growing their own foods and spinning their own clothes. The nefarious batteries, I would learn, power radios that the young people play instead of instruments, once used in ceremonies celebrating the land and elements. These fragments of matter are eloquent and important elements in creating the changing condition of the mountain and sky. If they are buried or left lying on the ground, they are insulting to the mountain. Burning plastics contaminate the wind and weather deities, replacing the ritual offerings once burnt for their satisfaction. Infertile soils and uncooperative weather are entirely understandable within this model. Kaateños see their actions occurring within a system of weather, land, spirits, all of which are beings exchanging with one another. Such was the nature of their interrelation with their immediate environment, climate change was conceived as a system affecting everything in this landscape.

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