Sunday, March 14, 2010

Memory in a Vibrating String

The night is like a plucked string. It just recently came on stage and now it vibrates. Copacabana’s main square almost lacks room for all the people who are there to hear the night’s sound.

Carnival ended last Tuesday in most of the world, but here it began the next day, Ash Wednesday. Catholics throughout the world go to mass that day and get a smudge of ash on their foreheads to remind them “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” But in this town and province it began that day.

Wednesday I left La Paz and got off the bus before its stop, when a small group of tourists with guide descended to visit the Basilica. I followed them down the cobblestoned street and entered the Basilica’s atrium in their shadow. But when they stopped to look, I kept walking, bag with clothes and camera on one shoulder and laptop case on the other.

As I got close I heard native flutes playing on the plaza. A stroke of fear beat against me in worry that I might have arrived too late for something important. I strode across the atrium, to the back of the blind man who sits on the ground by the main gate and scratches on his violin the pilgrim’s song. As I approached the gate, the first band stopped and another began.

On the side of the plaza where the sun rose, a band of tarkhas was gathered. The tarkha is a flute made of a block of wood, often mahogany, which is played so as to draw from the instrument a rich and conflictive set of overtones. The band contains different sizes, so the melody haunts among shifting overtones. One hears a sheen of dissonant sounds and pulsing rhythm, until one listens closely and the melody appears. Pounding bass drums and the scratch of snares keeps the tarkha players in the same pace.

On the Southwest corner a band of bamboo flutes called pinkillos stood lost in the music they played. The pinkillo, though a sweet flute, is played similarly to the tarkha. The players on pikillos of different sizes draw a rich set of overtones into which they can nest the melody, while snare and bass drums mark the rhythm.

I walked by the pinkillos glad to see only a single couple dancing, dressed in ordinary clothes. Before me, Mery and Roxana sat on the stoop of Roxana’s store, in the bright sunlight, eating ice cream bars. “Where have you lost yourself?” the asked me.

“I’ve been in La Paz. I thought I was going to come back yesterday, but I couldn’t get out of La Paz”

“Well, you didn’t miss much. Today is when the fiesta starts. It is the competition of the bands, representing two of the old four quarters of Copacabana. It used to be people would fight, but now they just dance with different bands and shout at each other.

“It is good you re here. You can dance with us on Saturday. You need to get yourself a clown costume and then we can dance.”

After leaving my belongings at Don Roberto’s Hostel, I walked back to the plaza. A stack of beer cases had appeared before the pinkillada, and the single dancing couple had another with them now. Another band of pinkillos has set itself up on the west side of the plaza, while the tarkeada on the east now had a good sized group of people, with serpentine around their necks dancing in front of them. The tarkha band and its dancers were not from the town of Copacabana, but were from the nearby countryside. While the other two groups did represent the two contrasting sides of the historic town.

A story says that, when the image of the Virgin of Copacabana was brought from Potosi, by way of La Paz, to Copacabana, the people of the northern half blocked her entrance to try to keep her out of the town, since the people of the southern half were the ones bringing her. There was a pitched battle and the southerners were able to break through and escort the Virgin to her new home, where she still stands.

Today, though, the Virgin is not involved, but the two sides compete. Not the kind of competition in which one side or the other wins, this is one of endless struggle, as the two sides bands play simultaneously and their dances spin and jump, shouting their zones‘ name against the other side.

During the day, the bands and dancers mostly stay outside the town, on the flatlands below its several thousand year mound. But after dark they return and pluck the nights string. They pirouette and bounce, circle and zigzag, and the night vibrates with sound.

Thousands of people line the square to watch and hear.

Last night I crossed through the center of the square to go from one group to another. A woman in her late fifties, early sixties, spoke to me. Dressed as a cholita, dark hat bowler perched jauntily on her head though lines creased her face, she said “Do you remember me?”

I looked at her and knew that I knew her, but I could not grasp where or when. “Yes. I know you. Are you...?” I paused.

“I am. You remember my son Nestor.”

“Oh, wow! Mrs. Condori. My gosh. It has been so long. Fifteen years since I saw you last. ¡Wow!”

The sounds of the night were gone. I was in shock and had no words. For fifteen years, every time I came to Copacabana I remembered and wondered where this family was. But I did not know how to reach them.

In 1985, I came to Copacabana to do research for my doctoral dissertation. I knew almost no one in the town. At first I stayed at “La Porteñita” just across from the market. Edelberto Barrigola was the manager and every time I come to Copacabana I see him, his brothers and sisters, and now their children. I know details of their lives.

David, Edelberto’s youngest brother, twelve-years old, met me as I descended from my bus that day. He offered rooms to any who would listen. But none did. Struck by his serious look--one he still wears, I followed him to his brother’s place. David’s oldest daughter will soon leave for college and he now has two restaurants, including a gleaming Broasted Chicken and french fries place, a big store, and a hotel. Just as then, he works hard and is serious.

But I did not continue to stay in the hotel Edelberto managed. I needed something cheaper, quieter, and more long term. So I moved to the “San Jose”. More rustic and removed from the bustle of the town center, it stood on the much quieter Plaza Sucre. My room, on the second floor, looked south onto the plaza and the wooded hills beyond. There I stayed for most of a year.

Mrs. Condori and her husband managed the San Jose. Alone, away from my family and friends, I came to depend on them. Their ten year old son, Nestor, would often come to my room and talk to me about school and his friends. But he too was a serious boy. He looked like he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

And often he did. His father would drink and Nestor’s mother would have to go find him, leaving Nestor to manage the hostal.

I called him my “abuelito”, my little grandfather. I reversed our roles, only two thirds in jest. He was so reliable, so serious.

One day, my friend Marcelo Fernandez, an Argentine journalist who was traveling through South America and stopped in Copacabana for several weeks, and I decided to go to the Island of the Sun. But, after asking around we decided to walk the three leagues to Llamphupata and catch a short boat ride from there to the Island across a narrow stretch of the lake.

This was the path the pilgrims took in Inca times. But now, almost every outsider take a boat from Copacabana’s harbor. We asked lots of people, carefully, about the route and how we could recognize our way. But there was just a little bit of uncertainty.

The abuelito told us he knew the path and began describing it to us.

I don’t remember how, but his parents decided Nestor would be our guide and with him we walked the three leagues and back. He told us stories. He took care of us, a little old man in a child’s body.

“Mrs. Condori. How is your husband?”
“He died fourteen years ago.”

“And, Nestor? How is Nestor?”

Last time we spoke was in the plaza, on a bench, under the hot sun on July. My mother was ill and dying. I had lost my job at BYU. I was shriveled inside.

Mrs. Condori told me her worries about her boy. He was a good student but did not have opportunities. Her husband was ill, she feared she could not care for her son. She asked if I could take him to the US. I shrank even more inside. I wanted to promise. I wanted to help. But, I knew the US Consulate would probably never give him a visa and I, without a job, could not serve as a guarantee. I could not take him home like he had taken Marcelo and Me.

For seven or eight years I could not return to Copacabana. I did not have funding from a University as a Visiting Professor here or there. For some reason, I could get to Peru. If nothing else, it cost less to travel there because it was a major tourist destination. But Bolivia started to seem a memory, a diminishing dream.

Still, when on Lake Titicaca I would look across to the invisible other side and remember .

When finally I did return, I had no way of contacting the Condori family. The Barrigolas have their stores and the hotels they manage. Them, I could easily find. I would look at the San Jose and remember and wonder, but knew no one who could help me find them. I figured the Abuelito and his family would remain just a memory, one of many losses from leaving BYU.

“Nestor lives here. He is married now. Do you want to see him? Come on, I will take you.”

It was hard to relate the man with the boy I knew. But we spoke and as memories started coming into the conversation it was obvious we shared things from the past. Interpretations and presentations may have been a bit different but the facts themselves were there, clearly. This was indeed the abuelito.

I walk away, much later, with plans to visit the family, with my feet treading through the air. Carnival, with its cacophony of competing bands and pulsing dancers disappeared. Something missing, a hole, a gap, had been filled. Memory was made whole.


  1. this digs at the anima.. tell me more about Nestor.. what happened to him after you left? to get him where he is now.. any pics....? V.

  2. love it, David. this set of stories describes so much about you - mysticism - Bolivia - anthropology - and it's something that i will return to.