Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Monuments in the Valley

July 2003

The city nestled around us like a great big hen beneath the mountains that form this valley.  They circled it, making a three dimensional wall that bends and folds but always keeps the valley locked in like a very large nest.  
With almost half a million people, Cochabamba at around 8000 feet above sea level is the third largest city of Bolivia.  Alway before I have just passed through the city, on my way somewhere else.  It has always been an embarrassing gap in my knowledge of this country.
Joaquín and I, after having breakfast among the pilgrims to the white Mormon temple, gleaming hesitantly agains the hillside, in the city´s morning smog, threw ourselves into the city´s nest.  We went to the bus terminal to see about tickets back to La Paz.  
Because winter vacations end this weekend and on Monday all of Bolivia´s kids have to go back to school, we did not buy anything.  They were jacking up prices with abandon.   So asked around and found a way to get to this research institute named CERES, that I have always visited.  Poor Joaquín had to sit and read the news paper while I looked at their publications and walked away with a bag full.  Great stuff f or my research.
We then went to a park where a tram carries passengers up a steep hill to the top.  There an enormous, white Christ was built, like a crest to top the city with religious devotion.   We had to wait in line for an hour.  Despite the heat of the sun, it was enjoyable just to watch the people of all different social classes and ethnicities.  The line broke all discipline when an ice cream vendor came by with a cart of frozen treats.  ¨Helados, helados, de leche, de fruta.  Cómprese helados,¨ he shouted out.  People gathered around him and emptied his cart as the pushed and shoved for the ones they wanted.  Then for a while the line was calm, as most people´s lips changed color.
At the top there was a group of Menonites, from lowland Santa Cruz Bolivia, looking for all he world like southern Utah polygamists.  The give away was the dialect of old German they were speaking among themselves.
After descending in the rocking gondola, with a courting Bolivian couple, two Norwegian tourists, looking like they could not get any redder under the highland tropical sun, Joaquín and me, we went to the main plaza, where some kind of public health fair was going on.  The square was filled with booths demonstrating proper condom use and talking about potable water, as a group dressed like Indians from Potosí and playing the tarkhas--rough sounding fipple flutes--bobbed and weaved among the crowd. 
On the edge of the plaza, we found an art gallery with an exposition from three artists from Potosí.  It was interesting to mover from seeing the performers attempt Potosí song and dance among the crowd of mostly university age people, to a quiet gallery of older strollers looking at romantic and abstract rendition of Potosí scenes and people.
Then, as the sun light started getting long, we joined a tour at the massive and amazing palace built by the Bolivia tin magnate Simón Patiño, one of the riches men in the world in the early part of the twentieth century.  Created in Italian marble, Damascus silk, and Lebanese cedar, and lowland Bolivian mahogany, the mansion was a melange of quotes from some where else, as a very wealthy man claimed status and position.  He drew heavily on greek mythology, like the neoclassical columns that looked like marble, but like those in Brigham Young´s tabernacle are made of painted wood.  These are hollow to hide steel beams that really support Patiño´s massive construction.  One room I particularly liked was an amazing quote from the arabesque alhambra of Spains that contained a massive pool table, with what looked like gold leaf on its legs.  The table had only one hole.  We were told it was for playing carambola, a kind of pool that just uses a few balls.  The table sat under brightly colored, arabic arches, embossed with arabic script.  
As we arrived at the temple to meet Joaquín´s father, it was hard for me not to compare the massive robber baron construction of the early twentieth century, with the massive corporate, religious construction of the early twenty-first century.  Patiño quoted heavily from the vatican as a claim to legitimacy.  Interestingly the temple quotes corporate chic as its own claim to social, and spiritual correctness.  The relationship was too clear for me not to see.   Nevertheless it is a powerful building.  Even more powerful is the devotion of the pilgrims who come from all over Bolivia to undergo religious ritual.  
Today, we leave in the afternoon for La Paz.  We will climb out from the city´s nest into the mountains and slowly rise up to the fourteen thousand feet where La Paz sits beneath snow clad mountains that rise to twenty-two thousand feet in this very vertical landscape.  

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