Karen Gans & Larry Buchanan Return to San Cristobal, Bolivia

Six years have passed since Larry and I last visited San Cristobal. Despite bits of information fed to us by our former Bolivian student, Cornelio, who had returned to San Cristobal in July 2015, I needed to see the town again for myself. Were the people happy with the changes? Was Larry right—what people wanted most were jobs? How had an increase in income influenced their way of life? Would they continue to practice Quechua customs and still believe in their cosmology that the rocks were their ancestors? Questions swarmed my mind.

I’ve tried to recall that smell that used to hit me when I deplaned in La Paz. Dirt. Dryness. Thin air. But this trip, I don’t smell it. I am ushered into a modern airport, no longer the dilapidated building of years gone by. I don’t even feel the lack of oxygen. I am surprised—and pleased that my body remembers. And there is Cornelio to pick us up. Sweet memories flood my mind. I’m coming home.

After a night in La Paz, trying to get some shut-eye (altitude still messes with our sleep), we set out by car to San Cristobal. Alert, excited, I want the trip to go fast. And it does, at least faster. What took us twelve hours to travel the Altiplano to San Cristobal now takes eight. Most of the way is paved. Except for an occasional detour where roads are being constructed, we no longer traverse self-made “roads” across the sandy desert. And where roads are being constructed, huge machines have replaced the sweat of men bent over picks and shovels. Some roads are even four lanes! Still, not much out here in the barren Altiplano other than an occasional village amidst thola bush and sand. A lone car approaches once in a while; no roadside stops for gas or a bite to eat. Nevertheless, we’re impressed as we whiz along.

“Royalties and taxes from the mine,” Larry explains. “The La Paz government receives a percentage of every ounce of silver it produces, maybe as much as a hundred million a year; and Colcha K, which governs the San Cristobal municipality, gets twenty percent of that for local projects. Looks like it’s going into the infrastructure.”

“Yes,” pipes up Cornelio from the backseat. “I’ve heard that Colcha K has eleven million dollars to spend this year!”

Eleven million dollars. I try to imagine what these small villages are doing with eleven million dollars. As we drive on paved roads, I notice electric power lines floating across the endless blue sky from tower to tower. We no longer splash through the rivers, the water threatening to rise above our window. We drive over the rivers on newly constructed bridges. What happens now for those condemnados who were destined to walk the earth for their crimes of suicide; they who were stopped only by their inability to cross rivers? Do they hobble across the bridge to terrorize villages?

A sign on the side of the road reads “Bienvenido a San Cristobal.” We are getting close now. A tender sensation surprises me. The importance of this village has been tucked away in my heart. My eyes scan the countryside. Fields of tiny plants—quinoa—cover acres and acres of formerly undeveloped sandy terrain.

“For export,” Cornelio explains. “People earn enough money working in the mine that they can afford help. They hire tractor drivers to till the earth, help plant and harvest. They also hire people to guard the llamas.”

Wasn’t that the second part of El Tio’s prophesy? I wonder. The people would stop raising their own food and animals.

As we enter the town, our eyes widen and we laugh with joy at the sign painted on the side of a brick wall, “VOTE SENOBIO ALCADE. CAMBIO SEGURO.” (VOTE SENOBIO MAYOR. SURE CHANGE.) Our dear friend, once the poorest man in the village now sits in the mayor’s seat, and it is he who decides how to spend the annual royalty money, spread out over forty-five villages in the region.

Senobio, who grew up in a roofless thatched-stick shelter, learned the Quechua customs by attending celebrations where a llama would be sacrificed so he could quiet his empty stomach with a meal. He always dreamed of schemes to make money—raising two cows for milk at an altitude where cows could not survive; turning Makawe, the hidden ancient archaeological town, into a tourist attraction; attempting to save the Quechua language by writing a book. Now he is mayor of forty-five villages, is driven by a chauffeur, and manages huge sums of money!

Word gets to Senobio and he finds us in our hotel, eagerly awaiting his visit. We must see his office in Colcha K, a three-hour ride from San Cristobal across undeveloped desert. Colcha K, selected as the capitol when its population was larger than area villages, resembles the old village of San Cristobal. Grass-thatched adobe houses nestle amid the hills. Unlike the old village of San Cristobal, however, a monstrous building is being constructed, which Senobio informs us will house government offices.

Senobio takes a seat, hands folded on his large wooden desk in his office. A broad grin spreads across his face as Bolivar and Sucre, two leaders of South American independence from Spain, gaze down from their portraits. These former leaders and the three Quechua principles, Ama sua, Ama llulla, and Ama qhella—“Don’t lie,” “Don’t steal,” and “Don’t be lazy”—inspire Senobio to do right by his constituency.

“If we follow these laws,” he explains, “all will be well.”

But have I forgotten someone? In the office of the mayor on Senobio’s shelf resides a wooden statue, El Tio, surrounded by his bottle of beer and some coca leaf. His devil’s horns are as pointy as ever, and of course, he sports a huge erection. Our god of the underworld who promised this gift of silver sits proudly surveying what his promise has wrought. Perhaps he is not yet forgotten. We are told the El Tio we made and left in the cave near the mine many years ago still exists. His clothes are decaying, the ball that comprised his head a bit shrunken, but he lives on, at least in the minds of our friends who helped place him there that dark, rainy night.

Eleven million dollars in royalties each year is lot of money, and Senobio, perhaps El Tio too, are proud of what has been accomplished. In San Cristobal, a spectacular new gymnasium with capacity for a thousand people promises a place for sports events and exercise. A large, modern hospital awaits equipment; due, they say, next year. Not only is health care provided, but also dental care, and several of the adolescents display mouths of braces when they smile. We see fewer gaping holes in people’s mouths, so evident in former years.

Youth attend a new high school, and a second elementary school will open next year. The crumbling adobe buildings are no more, with jagged glass in their broken windows that made me fear for the welfare of the children. These are modern buildings of brick that one could find in any town in the United States. A primary-colored swing set and jungle gym invite the younger ones to enjoy the playground. Gone, sadly, are the rocks where children scampered like mountain goats. I’m nostalgic, but hopeful that these children will have more educational resources, books, computers.

An institute offers high-school graduates tuition-free three-year programs in electronics, mechanics, and tourism with the goal of providing young adults with professional skills. Upon entering the classrooms, we receive big smiles from several of these young adults who recall singing “The Hokey Pokey” as youngsters with me.

San Cristobal, originally a town of 441 people, has grown to 3,000. There’s work, and people come from all over the country to take advantage of it. The town mushrooms outward into the surrounding desert, new houses under construction everywhere.

“It’s hard to have a sense of community with so many new faces and with everyone working long hours,” our friends lament. We see what they mean about newcomers. It’s difficult to strike up conversations with the women who have moved to San Cristobal from other places. They hide their faces when they see us walking down the street with our cameras. We are just tourists to them.

The people work long hours at the mine—twelve-hour days, seven days a week; then seven days off. “Too long,” Larry says. “They need more rest for safety reasons.” Thankfully, there have only been two deaths, which is good statistics for a mine operating this many years. The townspeople speak of five minutes to change shifts as closure of operations for even a few minutes would cost the mine millions of dollars.

However, the people seem satisfied with their salaries of $1,000 to $4,000 per month. I am surprised—and delighted—to find a bottle of imported olive oil on the table of a family who has invited us for dinner! Some can now afford not only luxuries such as olive oil, but also a new truck, a modern two-story house with running water and electricity, and opportunities to travel to the Chilean coast. Larry once said the townspeople would be spending weekends at the coast, and I had scoffed at such an idea.

With money comes losses. Besides a more pressured lifestyle, young workers can afford alcohol and vehicles, a bad mix. The road between Uyuni, the “city” an hour away, and San Cristobal is dotted with crosses where too many young people have met their deaths.

Aside from these horrid losses, our friends are adjusting to the changes with time. “It’s getting easier,” they report. “Our children have opportunities we never had. The high school band of 72 students playing modern instruments won a regional competition.” Again that nostalgic pain rises in me as I remember how every child in the old town could play a traditional instrument. I’ve always loved the haunting sound of the flutes and lively rhythm of the strings. But now these young people have so many opportunities. I’ve lost track of the number of kids attending colleges.

Cornelio can list his classmates and their accomplishments. He, himself, received an undergraduate degree from the university in our hometown of Ashland, Oregon, and went on to receive his master’s degree from the University of East Anglia in England. He has been teaching English to mine employees and students in San Cristobal with the intentions of teaching in La Paz. Having studied comparative education, he speaks of the need to introduce critical thinking into the curriculum.

His father, Octavio, welcomes us with a meal. Octavio now works in the mine, no longer serving as the town doctor. A brand new Toyota Hillux truck is parked outside his door. No more pushing that cheap motorcycle! Occasionally, he delivers a baby when asked because “the townspeople trust me.” He expresses relief that babies are no longer dying before the age of five. The deaths of children have dropped from forty percent to ten percent.

And what about customs? Is the animistic culture lost, the belief that the rocks have souls? Some say “yes” and some say “no.” The Achupalla, the rock where so many ceremonies were performed, survived the move to the new town, though propped up with braces. Ch’allas, ceremonies asking the gods to grant the wishes of the people, are still performed there. Quechua and Aymara languages are taught in the schools, and children dance the Tinku though to canned music and not to traditional instruments. Some older women dress in the traditional garb of wide skirts and bowler hats, but the majority sports jeans.

Much of the teaching of Quechua customs in the school curriculum is attributable to Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, who wants to preserve his own indigenous roots and those of “his” people. At the same time Evo wants to preserve ancient culture, road construction and power lines attest to his investing in developing infrastructure, bringing the remote Altiplano into the twenty-first century.

As for the mine that generates so much money, it is a massive hole in the ground with humongous trucks lumbering back and forth as they dig in the earth and cart their prize to the mill. This mine will have a long life span, promising work for several generations. I am lost as I stand high on a ledge overlooking the open pit. The only familiar sight is three monolithic rocks rising out of the earth, Los Tres Gigantes. These were the guardians of the town who appeared in the children’s drawings for many years after the town had moved. I felt relief that they are still standing proud and tall.

And there’s Soledad, happily driving one of these 220-ton trucks. It’s her week off when we finally find each other on the school playground. She runs to greet me and as we hug, a little girl with big, bright eyes and two black braids hugs Soledad’s leg. “Meet my daughter,” she says. “Her name is Karen.” Soledad smiles as I gaze down through happy tears at my namesake.