Thursday, January 28, 2010

Collapse and Memory

Thirty homes collapsed this morning in La Paz, as the cameras were rolling, when a slope decided to slide. All told more than seventy homes suddenly fell apart early this morning because of the heavy rains that are hitting much of South America. Even as I write, more homes are falling.

La Paz is built in a steep gorge cut into the altiplano by small rivers gradually eroding back towards Lake Titicaca. From that shifting edge the rivers plunge to the Amazon lowlands, and today they are carrying people’s lives and belongings. Almost no one has insurance.

The tragedy is enough to make one fall down as if struck by a tree.

Some decades ago, I lived near the area where the houses are falling now. Early Christmas Eve, people started pounding on metal posts with rocks, the warning that a slope was giving way. By morning three streets had disappeared into the river and others had slid.

I walked on the moving ground to help people try to recover what they could, while my heart was breaking. Cracks opened up around us, narrow and deep. Their bottom was hidden deep in the earth.

While watching the news over lunch, with the family with which I have lived since I first came to Bolivia as an anthropologist, some three years after I had walked up ground that was sliding down, so many memories of that and other events came back.

Shortly after the first houses collapsed, just as people were being awakened with warnings to evacuate, the news arrived, cameras shooting. As if on cue, thirty homes, some several stories high, with a reinforced concrete frame, collapsed.

“Look, look,” Marcos shouted. “It is just like in the movies, just like 2010”.

To me, though, it was not like in the movies. It was the Christmas of 1975 Redux.

Television played it over and over, before cutting to like footage of people climbing on the ruins to salvage what they could of their belongings. They were carrying out furniture, televisions, stoves, tennis shoes. Whatever was not buried under concrete, brink and mud.

A bundle of carefully gathered clothes suddenly fell down the slope as someone from the neighborhood shouted into the microphone “we need a megaphone. If someone has a megaphone can they please donate it. We have to coordinate and we have no means of communication. Please bring us a megaphone.”

A light rain started falling, again. More homes were settling and soon would probably collapse on camera. Only, this is not a movie. It is not the end of the world. There is no script.

It has been raining heavily. Yesterday, in El Alto, the streets became bits of paving stones in between fast flowing rivers. Cars and people had to ford them.

Not only are the rains falling here, they are generalized over much of South America.

Cusco, Peru has been declared an emergency zone. The massive bridge over the river at Pisac was torn apart by the flood water. Towns and fields are underwater and mudslides are everywhere. Even parts of downtown Cusco have been flooded.

Sao Paulo state in Brazil reports massive flooding, and in the Bolivian lowlands the normally slow moving, massive rivers that feed the Amazon are raging over their banks. Bolivia’s government is set to declare a national emergency.

Rain. Without it the fields will dry up and there will not be enough food. But when it falls too fast and hard over several days, water builds up and roars trying to find its way downhill.

While it rained, I stayed up most all night in Aguas Calientes, Peru, just outside Machu Picchu. Utah was hosting the Winter Olympics, but I and another professor had gone to Peru with some thirty students.

The Urubamba river had become so vast and concentrated as it spun against the canyon’s walls, it looked like any moment it would overwhelm the boom town built for tourists. And, the rain kept falling as a few of us sat under a palm frond roof playing pan pipes to wile the time away as I hope the water’s would stay out of town.

When our train left for Cusco the next day, the canyon fell into the river behind us. Our train moved slowly along the suddenly unstable tracks between water’s rush and sliding mud and rock. As night fell, we could not go any further forward because of a massive boulder that now blocked the tracks. Someone had to walk along the tracks to a post where they could get dynamite and then walk back to blow up the rock. In the meantime more of the canyon wall fell.

We sat on the train, as the minutes and then the hours ticked by, so very slowly, between falling rocks and torrent.

As the sun began its rise, we got to Cusco again. Somehow we had survived though twelve landslides occluded the tracks.

The Andes are dynamic. I am not surprised indigenous people speak of the mountains as living ancestors, and the earth as a lady. They all must be fed to keep them happy, lest they decide to move. This year they are moving. It is a time of change, again. The earth must be fed.


  1. Update: For now the rains have stopped and the landslide has also stopped in La Paz. Nonetheless some 118 families have lost everything. Luckily, everyone was able to escape unharmed.

    Here is today's press reporting for those who read Spanish.

  2. David, it reminds me of my own train ride down the Urabamba to Machu Pichu, only it was fears of the Shining Path that unsettled our trip.

  3. David, you evoked a set of memories. Here's a link to an unfinished piece:

  4. Scott, thank you for sharing your piece. I Have been on Taquile and could relate to what you were writing, including the complexity and unsettledness of the experience. A friend of mine, Elayne Zorn did a good monograph on the island where she looks at the situation of tourism, the sequelae of massive inequality, and so on. I recommend it. She lived there for more than a year, I believe and the people think very highly of her.

    A question: Why do you call Quechua "Cacao" in the piece?

    Thanks again. I enjoyed reading it.