Altiplano, Travels in the Bolivian Highlands

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The first thing I recognised when I stepped out of my hostel the next morning was my father’s description of the light. A fierce, white sunshine that cut every detail of the city into razor sharp relief. Beyond, the mountains looked beaten flat like giant billboards in its glare. I wondered if they would suddenly collapse in a strong wind, leaving nothing more than a tangle of scaffolding and dust.

It was my father Nigel’s love of the high Andes that first brought me to Bolivia. As a geologist he was sent on lengthy field trips to the Bolivian highlands in the mid-seventies, carrying out surveys of copper deposits in the mountains near Oruro. His PhD from Imperial College London based on his findings - completely unreadable to my unscientific mind - sits in one of my desk drawers together with several of his rock samples.

I occasionally roll these cylinders of rock over in my hands. I have always loved the way they feel; smooth, cool and impervious to change. They have marbled patterns of mottled green, laced through with flashes of cobalt blue. My father would decipher these patterns, stitching together vast stretches of geological time with a handful of measured sentences. To me the true meaning of these rocks is deeper, hidden in the silent poetry of the Earth.

I vividly remember Dad coming home to Scotland after one of his many lengthy trips to the Bolivian Andes. He appeared at the door and lifted my little brother, Charlie, and me up into his arms, spinning us around in the cramped hall of our cottage in the West Highlands. His clothes smelt of smoke, animal oil and dung. That night he sat by the fire in a long red poncho and a hat with ear flaps, listening to vinyl records of Andean panpipes and let us touch the long moustache that he had grown on his travels. I think that my American mother, Lucy, was as bewildered as we were by his faintly bizarre homecomings.

Over the years my father told stories from the Bolivian Altiplano that stoked my imagination. He talked about the women in the witches’ market in La Paz who sell charms for secret magic ceremonies. Of mountains streaked with all the colours of the rainbow by their rich mineral deposits. The great lake high in the Andes where people travel on boats built of reeds. He often mentioned the light, how sharp it is, how you have to wear sunglasses in the snow to prevent going blind.

I used to sit on the old pier at Arnisdale, staring across the Atlantic straits to southern Skye beyond. I imagined that this other country of limitless horizons lay just beyond those hills. In my mind’s eye it was wild, open and far more exciting than home (by the time I was twelve years old I had introduced bare breasted Amazonian women to the picture). It would have to be, after all, a pretty fantastic place to tempt my father away from us so often.

When I finally made it to Bolivia for the first time in the mid 1990s it felt like a distant homecoming. I’ll never forget arriving in La Paz at night on that first journey across the Atacama desert and into the Andes in a single carriage diesel train from Arica. The train laboured up the cordillera at only a few miles an hour until we reached the high plain. From there the narrow-gauge tracks glistened far ahead of us in the burning sand like two slender, silver backed snakes. The Bolivian border back then was a wooden shack, not much larger than a Glastonbury portaloo. Two guards emerged out of it to nonchalantly wave us on with brown beer bottles.

We arrived at the outskirts of La Paz at the centre of an immaculate night. Teetering on the highest edge of a deep canyon, the near vertical sides of the city looked like a deep sea of stars. With the constellations overhead, so clear at 4,000 metres, it felt like we were abandoning the earth altogether to beetle through outer space.

‘Here in Bolivia life is very slow and peaceful,’ the taxi driver blithely told us as we raced down town to our hostel. I caught sight of a starlit skyline of ragged peaks before being plunged into a gridlock of traffic around Plaza San Francisco.The city spilled around us in chaotic disorder. A thunderstorm was breaking and shop keepers, traffic police and Saturday night revellers were scuttling for shelter from a torrent of rain. The streets ran with water, rubbish and stray dogs. It all slipped past my window like the nocturnal imaginings of a fitful dream. I felt I had parachuted from the twenty-first century into a medieval citadel or a vast army encampment on the eve of some ancient battle.

The first thing I recognised when I stepped out of my hostel the next morning was my father’s description of the light. A fierce, white sunshine that cut every detail of the city into razor sharp relief. Beyond, the mountains looked beaten flat like giant billboards in its glare. I wondered if they would suddenly collapse in a strong wind, leaving nothing more than a tangle of scaffolding and dust.

I was so captivated by this first visit to Bolivia that I studied an MA on Latin America in London, before returning to La Paz to work as a journalist for three years. During this time I camped with indigenous tribes in the Bolivian Amazon, ate sheep brains with an Aymara family in a remote highland village, caught Hepatitis A and Typhus (at the same time), fell in love, almost drowned while rafting the Coroico river and narrowly avoided being deported by the then president Hugo Banzer for reporting on human rights abuses. When I decided to settle back in Scotland a Bolivian friend told me ‘You will always carry a small piece of the Andes in your heart.’ He didn’t warn me that this part of myself would divide my soul and eventually draw me back.

 

A singular event propelled be back to Bolivia. My father died suddenly in Chile, where he was living with his Brazilian second wife and their daughter Claudia. He fell off his bike on a Sunday ride near their home in Santiago. The neighbour who found him unconscious but still alive phoned both the hospital and the community priest. It was the priest who reached him first and my father died in his arms before the ambulance even arrived.

I flew to Santiago the next day, my sense of shock amplified by the sudden journey out of a dreich Highland winter into a blazing South American summer. The small church in Las Condes was overflowing with mourners I didn’t know. I stood at the entrance next to my brother afterwards to be hugged and kissed by a procession of teary-eyed strangers.

Stepping into the vestibule to look at my father one last time behind the oval window of a sleek black coffin was the hardest thing I have ever done. Only once there I felt an odd sense of relief. The profile in the coffin was Nigel, but the father that I had come to say goodbye to had clearly already left. I stood there for what seemed like an eternity with no idea where he had gone, or how I could find my way back to the man that I so loved but felt like I barely knew.

At the wake that evening I slipped into Dad’s study to escape the crush of mourners. Opening the top drawer of a desk I found his field watch. It was a reassuringly heavy chunk of 1970s technology with a big black face and the words ‘navigator timer, water 70m proof’ written in tiny script in the centre.The watch’s frozen hands recorded the slender moment of 3:22pm and 43 seconds, the exact point that this time-pieces’ mechanised momentum unwound to a full stop. I wondered if there is some clockwork buried inside us all that ticks down to our prescribed departure. Or if the universe is just a game of chance - numbers picked from a rolling ball at the back of a dimly lit bingo hall.

Dad once told me this watch was the one constant on all his field trips because it was so indestructible. It didn’t even need a battery, winding itself back up with the boundless swing of his arm. Maybe he loved it because it felt like certainty on his wrist, a solid artefact of interlocking precision to help his scientific mind sub-divide and interpret the world.

I stood for a long time feeling the watch’s solidness in my hand. If grief has a weight then this was it. Numbed to the buzz of conversation in the hall outside I studied the tiny watch window’s lattice of scratches across the glass. Each fine line marked for me a momentary intersection in his life. I wondered if I could interpret them, like the creases on a palm or an encrypted map that I could follow, or maybe even link up.

To me all these faint contours led back to one distant region, the Altiplano. That heartland that had shaped both mine and my father’s lives. Here I could be a different kind of explorer, seeking out memories rather than mineral samples. I so desperately wanted to piece together the threadbare fragments of my family tapestry, to somehow re-imagine our lives back into a single, coherent image.

Introduction to Altiplano, Travels in the Bolivian Highlands, 2019

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