A postcard from the shrine of Difunta Correa

20120726-185346.jpg

Walking in the desert surrounding Mendoza, we’d seen small roadside shrines made out of tiny mud bricks and stones. Sometimes there were little statues, sometimes nothing but water-filled plastic bottles.

It was hot. Really hot. And since we were having no luck with hitch-hiking we considered for a moment that if we got stuck out there we’d drink the water from the bottles.

It didn’t come to that, luckily.

A week later, in Salta, we were riding through the desert landscape of Quebrada de las Conchas, with more water than we needed. In the misty dampness our guide pointed out a red shrine under a tree. It was for Gauchito Gil, who was hanged from a tree but whose supernatural powers, according to legend, have influence from beyond the grave.

We asked if the shrines we’d seen in the desert had also been made for Gauchito Gil, and that’s when we learned about another folkloric miracle worker.

In the 19th century, a young woman had been crossing the desert with her baby to reach her sick husband who was fighting in the civil war. Without enough water, she died. Days later some gauchos found her body, the baby miraculously still alive having fed from her ever flowing breast milk.

Like Gauchito Gil, she has become a popular folk-figure preyed to for help and miracles. A debate among the Argentinians in our bus began over whether the Catholic Church officially recognized either Difunta Correa or Gauchito Gil. They told us that if in need you can take water from her shrine, but you must later replenish it.

Two days later, our long-distance bus made a stop in a middle-of-no-where village. The road was just a dust track, but there were lots of parilla restaurants with outdoor barbecue pits where animal carcasses were stretched out as if undergoing some kind of medieval torture. Behind a row of little gift stalls, a dry path led up a hill through what looked like piles of junk. We decided to explore.

What we found was a huge shrine complex devoted to Difunta Correa, in her final resting place. The ‘piles of junk’ were models of houses and businesses, offered in hope and gratitude for her help. Weather-worn figurines of the prone Difunta, complete with bare breast and baby, adorned the stairs and railings of the pathway as it lead upwards. License plates, and the occasional motorcycle helmet, hung from the roofed cover of the staircase and little church at the top. Photos and notes of thanks were attached with string and drawing pins to every available surface.

A man was crawling on hands and knees in supplication as he neared the top. A woman reached into a large concrete pit to light a candle amongst a mass of wax stumps and burning flames and whispered something with her hands pressed together. Another woman took a bottle of water from the many that were next to a well, and then threw an empty bottle into a pile on the other side, presumably to be refilled later. Inside the tiny church, people bent their heads in prayer to the life-size figure in a red dress.

We had hardly enough time to look before we had to descend through the hill of votives and pass the gift shops, selling the same little figurines used as offerings, and get back on our departing bus.

This was a world away from Buenos Aires or Rosario, which felt like being in any European country.

Salta la Linda

Salta the Beautiful.

It’s true. Salta is beautiful. It’s the most beautiful city I saw in Argentina.

They like that word in Salta. A girl asked us where we were from. Her response, “Qué linda!”

20120726-121514.jpg

20120726-121548.jpg

20120726-121630.jpg

20120726-121702.jpg

20120726-121800.jpg

20120726-121846.jpg

20120726-121939.jpg

20120726-122013.jpg

Want to do something beautiful while you’re in Salta? Visit Cloudhead at their lovely Arthouse (see the view in the picture above) and get involved with their community projects.

Aymara New Year at Valle de la Luna

20120624-163949.jpg

We set off at 5:30am. Dawn wouldn’t reach Valle de la Luna, just outside La Paz, until at least 7:00. Among that valley of oddly-eroded mud columns and crevices, people were gathering to celebrate the Aymara New Year.

The rituals and offerings which take place at the winter solstice are meant to ensure good fortune in the coming agricultural year. Not only has the legitimacy of the Aymara New Year been called into question, but the holiday, only made official in 2010, is still controversial. That morning, as we walked along the road from our volunteer accommodation in Jupapina, fighting off stray dogs and sleepiness, we had no idea about the history of this holiday. All we had to go on were rumors of llama sacrifice and a flyer that told us there’d be live music and dancing.

As we neared the Valle de la Luna, electronic music blasted from a speaker. We joined the line of people, bundled in warm clothes, slowly filing through the subterranean entrance. Lit by oil lamps made from recycled cans and tins, we walked under a grey dawn sky, along the narrow path between sandy-stone formations and on wooden walkways. Ahead, the landscape opened into a flat area, oddly illuminated with green floodlights, where a group of people huddled close to a fire.

On that small promontory of land it was hard to know where to give my attention. In a concrete pit a woman was chanting, wrapping something in a brightly-colored cloth. Musicians wearing turquoise ponchos and woolen hats played pan pipes and stamped their feet in rhythm. Further away from the fire a man sprinkled ‘alcohol de caiman’ over coca leaves and pastel-colored charms that looked like Love Heart sweets.

Teenagers snapped photos on camera phones and whispered amongst themselves. A Scandinavian-looking couple enjoyed the advantage of their height and swept their heavy SLR lenses above the crowd. Old women, clad in several layers of conflicting wooly patterns, pushed their way to the front for a better view, some having even brought stools with them. A few officials, with the La Paz logo emblazoned on their warm jackets, stood on the outskirts making sure no-one got too close to the edge.

Our group had dispersed into the throng. The South Africans were up on a slight ridge; FC with his eyes closed taking in all the sounds while Dirk watched some drummers who circled through the crowds. Rachel and Maggie held their hands out to the fire where the cloth-covered bundle now burned. Regan and the kids laughed about something. Paige was chatting to one of the pipers before being whisked away by a short-haired, yellow-coated woman to dance with the drummers.

“You know everyone,” I whispered afterward.

“It’s what happens when you’re here five months,” she replied. “That woman’s the mayor of Mallasa.”

I looked over at Rolando, who I knew had previously been mayor. He was posing for a photo with his wife Emma, while their kids still laughed with Regan. A mixed Bolivian-British family, they have deep connections with their local community and set up an organisation, Up Close Bolivia, to help connect willing and knowledgable volunteers with projects in the villages of Mallasa and Jupapina.

When we first arrived, we were welcomed with open arms into their home. Since then we’ve been welcomed into their community through both their efforts as hosts and our own efforts in the projects we’ve been doing. We’ve visited the nursery set up and run by local mothers. We’ve created and taught English classes for children and adults. We’ve eaten almuerzo in local restaurants and bought our groceries from the little tiendas in the village. We’ve hiked up the Muela del Diablo, cooked together over a bonfire and traded our stories with each other. Although volunteers are always coming and going, Up Close Bolivia has succeeded in making an international family here in the Andes. It’s almost become a cliche at leaving dinner speeches, when everyone mentions the extraordinary sense of community they’ve felt being here.

20120722-160330.jpg

Someone tells us that we should raise our hands ready for the first rays of sun, but being in a valley is deceptive and we wait in shadow a little longer. When finally the sun peeks over the mountain, there’s a collective cheer and someone leads the crowd in an Aymaran chant.

Then it’s all over. The musicians start packing up and people wander towards the exit. I warm myself at the fire which has died down a lot. Amongst the charred bundle I see tiny bones – was this the llama sacrifice? The woman who’d performed this ritual was sitting on a wall, talking to an old man, both of them in costume. A friend of theirs approaches and they greet each other happily. They take a few pictures together then say goodbye.

On the way out I stop to watch a live band which mixes electric guitar and drums with traditional Andean percussion and a couple of charangos (a lute-style instrument popular in Bolivia). The lead singer has an inexplicably deep voice for such a young person. His singing is interspersed with crazy laughs and whoops, and the crowd laughs back as they trail out and buy api and salteñas to give them fuel for the journey home.

20120710-181938.jpg

Bariloche

Bariloche is beautiful. It’s also very touristy. You can cycle along country roads, kayak in clear lakes, hike woodland trails and have your fill of craft beers and Swiss chocolates. You can also laze on shorelines and watch pumice floating on the water or catch a cable car up to a viewpoint to avoid the dusty volcanic ash on the roads.

20120708-114833.jpg

20120708-115839.jpg

20120708-115917.jpg

20120708-115950.jpg

20120708-120213.jpg

20120708-120304.jpg

20120708-120335.jpg

20120708-120531.jpg

We stayed at Green House Hostel, easily one of our favourite hostels in South America, for it’s quiet location closer to hikes, super communal spaces and friendly cat.

The Bolivian Altiplano

Three days in a desert thousands of meters above sea level.

Day One

-cross from Chile into Bolivia
-Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca
-Sol de Mañana geyser field
-Termas de Polques hot springs
-Laguna Colorada
-bitterly cold night

Day Two

-Árbol de Piedra
-Laguna Hedionda
-llama meat for dinner

Day Three

-Salar de Uyuni
-Train graveyard