This is why I travel.
The night before the day was pretty miserable. And when the day dawned, it wasn’t a lot better. So my expectations were pretty low for New Year’s Day.
I slept in the Bolivian city of Oruro, a place of more than a quarter of a million people set in the middle of the altiplano that links Uyuni further south with La Paz in the north. I had booked a room in a hostel/hotel that looked like it was built about 10 years ago – ie it appeared bright, modern and swish, in a Holiday Inn sort of way. What the photos didn’t show was the surroundings. They were a mixture of Beirut after a bad spat and an open top landfill site, in high wind. The filth was simply incredible – it was everywhere and there was no apparent effort to keep the place clean. The only ones doing that were the stray dogs that were everywhere feasting on mounds of rubbish.
Apart from the incongruous hostel/hotel, there was a warren of mud and gravel roads and walled-off sites, some of which had homes in them. Most were half finished, or certainly works in progress – and not a lot of progress at that. The ring road, off which the hotel was located, was the only hard-surface road around. Everything else was mud and piles of builders’ waste, plastic – loads and loads of plastic – and domestic garbage. And so, when it rained, which it did for most of the night, the result next morning was medieval-looking in terms of the filth and squalor everywhere. And a few feet from the hotel there was what might have been a small river but was more of an open sewer. My bathroom stank of sewerage.
The whole spectacle screamed inequality and injustice. What riles me about such conditions is not the effect they have on me. I can – and do – leave, after all. What annoys and depresses me is that a government and/or a municipality, a society majority even, cannot deliver better for its people. Maybe there’s a view that this is okay, that it is all right to have people live in such conditions. I don’t agree.
I slept badly, woke at 5am and got up to do some writing. Rather than have a faeces-perfumed shower, I got dressed and headed off rapid. The altiplano is fairly dull, to be honest, though traditional agriculture was asserting itself more and more as I headed north. Lots of tillage and quite a few dairy and beef cattle. All facilitated by the rain, such as last night’s. This month is, apparently, the best for rain in the region and so I really have left desert behind, at least for now.
Small towns and villages along the way appeared to have little to offer. Most straddled the highway and, even though it was Sunday, you could tell from the shops what went on most of the time – mini-markets, puncture repair outfits, metal workshops, clothes shops and outlets supplying machinery and other items to agriculture. I reckoned that, behind all this, there was nothing much of interest and so I ploughed on. The road was good, there was little traffic and it was nice to ride at 100km/h.
Just south of La Paz, one of the nondescript towns straddling the road had a large-ish brown stone church that looked interesting, and by now I needed a break. So I turned in and rode up yet another battered and bashed mud and gravel road, around a small square and down a narrow lane to the church. When I came to the gates, people had started pouring out and it was immediately apparent that a special event was taking place. There were perhaps 70 or 80 people in traditional Bolivian dress. The men and women, both naturally short in stature, wore brightly coloured woven shawls, multi-layered skirts and hats, sometimes the traditional Bolivian hat favoured by women, a cross between a bowler and a pork-pie hat that usually looks a few sizes too small. The men were similarly colourfully attired. And when they filed out of the church, they lined up in front of it, I assumed for family photos. But others began moving along the line, shaking hands, embracing and throwing confetti-like pieces of white paper over their heads. At first I thought it must be a wedding.
The churchyard was thronged with other people, some wearing “ordinary” clothing, and there was also a band. In fact several bands soon converged on the churchyard and began belting out, on drums and woodwinds, traditional Bolivian indigenous music, somewhat in competition with each other.
It was obviously a very joyous and enormously colourful occasion. I parked the bike immediately and wandered in. Everyone was taking photos, so I did too. I just loved the spectacle – it was so colourful, joyous and laughter-filled. There was nothing stiff or formal going on. There was lots of embracing and lots of Feliz Año Nuevo-ing which made me think maybe the whole thing was a special Mass for New Year’s Day. Eventually, I spotted a real photographer, a professional named Juan Carlos. With his bit of English and my bit of Spanish, he was able to tell me that what I was witnessing was a special New Year’s Day church service for the incoming members of some sort of administrative bodies, serving the four areas around the district of Sica Sica, which was also the name of the town I was in. Sica Sica, I now know, is the capital of Aroma province in the department of La Paz, and the stone church is a significant building, with twin bell towers.
I think, but can’t be certain, that the local bodies to which the people being sprinkled with good luck confetti had been drafted, or elected, were special councils for indigenous people and come into being, in effect, on January 2nd. But I’m not certain of that – they might have been straightforward ordinary local municipal councils, but a cause for celebration nonetheless when taking up office.
What they must have made of me, I haven’t a clue. There I was moving in and out of the crowd taking pictures and videoing, carrying a motorcycle helmet and lumbering about in motorcycle gear. I must have appeared like something from Nasa and, obviously, I was the only outsider there. But their reaction was nothing but curiosity, warmth and friendship. I was approached repeatedly and asked where I was from – everyone here confuses the sound of Holland and Ireland and so I have to whip out my passport to be sure – and what I was up to. They embraced me and shook hands, and laughed great, happy laughs. It was actually very moving, the warmth of their greeting of me – a total stranger. Me, the odd one out, could not have been made to feel more welcome.
So that’s why I travel. For moments like this – moments that come right out of the blue, that happen simply because you get a notion of “Oh, I wonder what’s up there?” Nine times out of 10, there’s actually nothing that unusual. But still you go because, occasionally, very occasionally, you can find yourself right at the heart of another community’s special moment and have an encounter, a wonderful encounter, that enriches and makes you think, yeah, it’s not all bad.
Peter Murtagh is riding his motorbike from Tierra del Fuego in South America to Alaska and writing here regularly. You can also read his blog at Tip2Top.ie and follow him on Twitter (@PeterMurtagh), Facebook (Peter Murtagh) and Instagram (Tip2Topadventure)