Spring 2018 / Human & Nature

The Point of the Wilderness

by Sabine Bergmann

Critically Acclaimed

Eight thousand years ago, among the towering Andes and their yawning canyons, one choice changed everything. In those days, bands of hunter-gatherers made their living off of rivers that snaked between the mountains, and starchy plants that grew on steep, wind-whipped hillsides. Up in those mountains, which rose 10 and 12 and 14,000 feet high, one of these groups did something radical and revolutionary: They chose a permanent home.

The Andean highlands were not a hospitable place to settle. The climate was unpredictable, swinging from droughts that left the hills pale with dust, to torrents of rain that surged down the slopes. But the people were intrepid, and over time, houses of mud and stone and thatch sprouted amongst the hills, and a domestication of plants and animals began: woolly alpaca; leafy, fuscia-flowered amaranto grains; rainbow-colored stalks of quinoa; and hundreds of varieties of potatoes — dry and purple, pale and bulbous, or round and deep yellow, like a late afternoon sun.

 

Up in those mountains, which rose 10 and 12 and 14,000 feet high, one of these groups did something radical and revolutionary: They chose a permanent home.

 

The families shaped their new home, and their new home shaped them. Their bodies acclimated to the altitude, and they became broad-chested and wide-lunged; their blood became so saturated with red blood cells that outsiders called them the ‘people of purple skin.’

They lived with the land in a kind of compromise, born of generations of trial and error. Their customs passed to their children, and their children’s children, who grew tubers and roots and grains, and walked barefoot amongst the hills, along trails left by their predecessors. Eventually, the people of this land became known as today’s indigenous Quechua. For millennia, their words and traditions passed down to hundreds of generations without fail.

Until now.

~~

Montepunta is the kind of place you can only find if you’ve been there before. It has no roads; it has no signs; even the name is vague. It translates to “the point of the mountain.” Or perhaps, to “the point of the wilderness.”

But Ana Arce, a short, middle-aged woman with curly brown hair and a half-toothed smile, knew how to get there. We met a couple of months into my 2008 internship with a farmers’ aid organization in Bolivia. I was hoping to track down indigenous tribes in the Andean highlands. Ana agreed to be my guide and my Quechua-Spanish translator.

Montepunta lay deep in the mountains, and so in an old pickup truck we summited one range, plunged down toward the valleys, and then climbed our way back up again. By the time the nearest town was three quarters of an hour behind us, the land had turned into an endless maze of dusty hills and mountains.

“Do you see them?” Ana asked.

“See what?”

“Between the hills,” she said, pointing. “They have been there for centuries.”

They were faint, barely noticeable from the distance, but they were there, curving along the edges of the hills. Thin and worn and obviously ancient, they meandered along in every direction, into the distance: footpaths.

~~

Her tiny figure came down the steep hillside in greeting and even when she reached us, Rufina Rojas was still no taller than my shoulder. Under her white brimmed hat was a face of leathered skin. She couldn’t tell us the year she was born — not in our calendar, at least — but I figured she was about 50. In soft, vowel-rich Quechua she invited us to see her house. Then she turned and shimmied sprightly up the hill, two lustrous braids of inky black hair spilling down her back. Maybe she was younger than 50.

Ana Arce interviewing Rufina Rojas in 2008 at Montepunta. PHOTO: SABINE BERGMANN.

Quechua families like Rufina’s had lived in this scattering of subsistence farms for as long as their collective memory allowed them to remember, perched on hilltops in adobe huts. The families would wait for signs of rain to plant, following the practices of the generations that came before them. In times of plenty, they would travel on foot to the nearest town, a week’s walk away, to store corn, wheat, and potatoes for the families to rely on when neither the signs nor the rains would appear. No one owned anything. Everything was borrowed from the land, from the ancestors.

“You can always make a living from the land,” Rufina’s mother had told her. “There will be rough times, and you must prepare for them. But the rains will come, always, if you wait.”

They always had. And when they did there were celebrations, festivals that Rufina spoke of wistfully. The families of Montepunta would emerge from their homes to make music and drink fermented corn, and pay homage to the saint who lavished their land with rain. As she described the festivals of her youth, Rufina spoke kindly and lyrically to Ana, her words a celebration in themselves.

How things had changed.

Now Rufina stood dismally at the lip of her farmland, the soil beneath her feet cracked and dry. Chunks of rock lay near spindly grasses on the windswept hillside. There wasn’t much topsoil — sections of it had simply been swept away by the wind, revealing solid rock. The land had stopped producing, and the surplus stores had long been emptied. As the wind gusted around her, Rufina stood alone with her barren earth.

“Doña Rufina,” I asked, “do you have any wawas?”

Rufina gazed sideways at me, squinting against the distant sun, a slanted smile rounding her cheeks. There was no need for Ana to translate: I had used the Quechua word for children.

,” Rufina confirmed in Spanish. “Kimsa,” she said in Quechua, then translated aloud: “tres.” Three.

I looked back at Rufina’s house — a single room of adobe walls and a thatched roof. Sun shone through a gaping hole in the roof’s woven straw and fell onto a floor of dirt. A worn sheepskin hung limp from one of the roof’s exposed wooden beams.

 

I couldn’t stop thinking of those adobe houses on the hillsides, how they were the same color as the land: the color of dust.

 

“Where are they now?”

Rufina spoke quietly, the wind stealing many of her words. Ana listened carefully, nodding, and then relayed a single phrase: “Se han ido.

They have gone.                     

~~

I boarded my plane to leave Bolivia just before political chaos reached its crescendo. A couple of weeks after my departure, clashes between the president’s supporters and the opposition movement erupted into violence, dragging one of the country’s northeastern states into mayhem and martial law. By September of 2008, the country was on the brink of civil war.

For two days, I sat in a series of airports and on a series of planes. I had a life I was supposed to be rushing home to — worried parents to see, a college degree to finish — but instead, I was swimming in memories: pink flamingos at purple mineral lakes, shaggy llamas wandering the edges of sun-sparkled salt plains, and the view of endless hills from atop Rufina’s mountain.

I landed in darkness. The next morning, when I awoke to blinding sunlight, my months in Bolivia felt faded and detached, tantalizing but lost, like a dream interrupted.

~~

In my mind’s eye, I could see the hills rippling out to the horizon like squashed dough. For nearly a decade, that same Bolivian landscape — the view from Rufina’s hill — lingered in my memory. I couldn’t stop thinking of those adobe houses on the hillsides, how they were the same color as the land: the color of dust.

Eventually, they called me back.

I returned during the rainy season of 2017. The hills were covered in thorns and scrub, fuzzy, waist-high pines shaped like cacti, and stalks of yellow flowers that towered dozens of feet high. My heart lifted at the sight of green on the land.

Ana and I rattled for hours over rock-strewn roads in the same truck we had driven nine years before. It eventually became clear that we had gone too far, that we had driven straight through Montepunta without recognizing its houses or footpaths, without seeing a soul. Then Ana pointed out the side of the truck window.

“A house!”

Our tires crunched to a stop. I could tell, before I even hopped out of the truck to take a closer look, that the structure had been abandoned: The roof was gone, and the mud-straw walls looked as if they were melting into the ground. I knew before we turned the truck around to find the others.

We were witnessing the creation of a new set of indigenous ruins.

~~

Once we knew what to look for, the houses leapt out of the landscape. Their thatched roofs had been the first to go. Many of their walls remained, but much of the mud that once held the straw and stones together was gone, leaving emaciated, cracked panels behind, patches of their stony skeletons exposed. Cacti grew up from their insides. How long would it take for these houses to be swallowed by the earth? Twenty more years? Ten? There would be no trace of them left.

I didn’t know what to do. We had come to speak to the people, but there were no people to speak to. I wandered between the surrendering structures, picking around the shrubs for signs of the paths that were once strung across the landscape like the threads of a spider’s web.

When we finally spotted the walking path that led to Rufina’s old farm, I wasn’t prepared to see goats. In the fading light, I ran like a madwoman to the figures in the distance.

A dust-coated young man — in his 20s, I guessed — made his way cautiously toward me. When Ana caught up to us, she introduced me as a friend of Rufina’s, and the man smiled broadly, incredulous.

“I’m her cousin,” he said. “That’s my wife,” he pointed at a woman herding the goats. Her skin was toasted brown-black from the sun.

We walked among the hills as the sky turned pink, and Cristin Meneces showed us more abandoned houses. On a neighboring hill, I noticed one with a thick crack piercing the adobe, shaped like the bolts of lightning in the distance. Cristin and his wife were the only people who still lived year-round in Montepunta.

We returned to Cristin’s house, and he told me how he had fled to the nearby town of Tarata with the other families. But he came back to his people’s land. It was the only place where he knew how to live.

“Now that there’s no rain, we take our burros down to the river to get water. It takes a day to get there, and sometimes it’s dry. Then we don’t have enough to cook with; we go to bed without eating.”

As the world went dark around us, I asked him if this was the hardest thing he’s had to face.

“The security is worse than the drought now that there’s no one living out here.”

“Security?”

“Yes. A few months ago, a jaguar came and ate four of my goats. In an instant!”

“A jaguar?” I looked at Ana. “Is he sure it was a jaguar?”

She nodded.

“Jumped over the fence of this pen,” Cristin continued, “that’s why I’ve installed this.” He pointed at a tangle of barbed wire atop the goat enclosure.

“That’s terrifying,” I said.

“I came out with my machete.” He demonstrated a swinging motion with his arms.

“Did you hurt it?”

“Didn’t get the chance. But he will be back. The jaguars are as hungry as we are.”

~~

Two days later, we were in Tarata, hoping to find out what had happened to Montepunta’s refugees. We arrived in the mid-morning sun and snaked around small, cobblestone streets to a preschool, where we met Célida Veizaga.

 

Before the drought and the rats and the diseases that killed off the peach trees, Célida remembers the foxes.

 

Célida had grown up in the rural areas around Tarata. She saw the people of Montepunta and the other mountain communities come tumbling into town during the drought. Some had stayed to try to make a living, but the climate was changing in Tarata, too. And so most continued on to the poor neighborhoods of metropolises like Cochabamba and Buenos Aires. That sounded like a horrible choice to Célida: She didn’t like towns, and she certainly didn’t like cities.

“You have to buy everything!” she said, exasperated. “You even have to buy water.” She held a chubby-cheeked toddler in her arms. “The only things that matter are the objects you own, on the property you pay for, and you only live for the next moment. In the cities, your world is small. You have no ties to the past, and no idea of the future.”

It struck me that we had caught a moment that had happened before. But for most of us, it happened so long ago that we don’t remember what Célida remembers. Before the drought and the rats and the diseases that killed off the peach trees, Célida remembers the foxes. She remembers the children running free. Now, she worries that children born in cities will never return to the land. They will never want to return to the land, because they never really got to be a part of it to begin with.

~~

Ana was adamant. “You have to meet Don Thereso,” she said.

So up the rocky inclines we went once again, in our tired, shuddering truck, but instead of continuing straight on to Montepunta, we took a side road that plunged between the mountains. We descended slowly, down the dirt trail and into a gorge, and parked at the bottom. The metal roofs of the houses were unexpected. They were identical and close together, like in a model village.

We spotted Thereso standing in a basketball court with a monumental awning. He sported a black farmers hat and bushy black eyebrows. Two little legs dangled from the bundle of multicolored fabric on his back.

“Welcome,” he said warmly. “Welcome to Izata!”

I perched on the ledge of a concrete water basin, struggling to get my bearings. Ana explained that she wouldn’t need to translate from Quechua, but would help me decipher Thereso’s accent.

“You have water?” I asked.

“Yes!” Thereso beamed. “Right behind you.” He indicated the faucet in the center of the basin.

I laughed. “That’s incredible.”

“Isn’t it wonderful?” he said. “I love this kind of technology — engineering. Love it. I tell my sons to go to the cities and study it, so they can come back here and help others get water.”

“How many sons do you have?”

“Six, including this one,” he indicated the plump toddler who had escaped the fabric to wobble around.

I asked Thereso to tell me everything. He spoke of droughts, and hail, and frosts — a climate gone mad — and a cholera epidemic, too. The people weren’t prepared, he said.

Then the government came in and built a road, and a village. The people came in from the hills to live in the houses. They didn’t flee for the cities, and they didn’t wait in the mountains to starve with the jaguars. They did something else: They chose a new home in Izata.

“In 2003, the water system was installed,” Thereso said. “We’ve been experimenting with irrigation ever since!”

It was a tricky business, he explained. Often, the irrigation experiments would fail. Figuring out a new way of living with the land would take time. It might take generations of trial and error.

Thereso’s wife appeared, holding a bulbous bunch of red onions, setting them on the ground so that we could all marvel at their size.

Don Thereso’s wife proudly holds onions from their 2017 harvest in Izata. PHOTO: SABINE BERGMANN.

“So much bigger than the ones at the market!” Ana exclaimed.

“And the potatoes!” Thereso added. “You must stay for lunch. You’ll see.”

We sat around a low table in the spotty shade of a leafless tree. I folded my six-foot-tall frame delicately into a child’s chair, and listened to the laughter. Children were running around us, stopping every now and then to stare and giggle. Occasionally I would stand up from the table to stretch, and they would run off in a delighted panic, yelling “Giant! Giant!”

We feasted on a bowl of golden potatoes and boiled eggs, accompanied by thumbnail-sized kernels of corn. We ate with our hands. We poured a homemade sauce into the basins of bitten eggs and onto the steaming insides of potatoes that were round and deep yellow, like the late afternoon sun.

~~

When Don Thereso walked us to our truck, he handed me a gift — a jar of ointment, a soothing balm.

“It’s an old remedy,” he said. “Homemade.”

I looked back at the truck, then grabbed the only thing I could find — a bag of popcorn sitting between the seats.

“It’s from the city,” I said. “Made by machines.”

“Engineering,” he said, and smiled.

~~

Montepunta’s families will live on. But something has been lost. And the momentum of modernity is too strong to fight, the hardships of the past too deadly to go back to. We will continue leaving the lands of our ancestors. We will continue to float from apartment to apartment, severed from what came before us, struggling to leave something for those who come after.

Or maybe we won’t. Maybe we will make a choice that changes everything. Like their Andean ancestors, and the families of Izata, maybe we, too, will try something radical and revolutionary.

Sabine Bergmann

Sabine Bergmann is the co-founder and co-CEO of Hidden Compass. She’s also an award-winning journalist whose cinematic stories invite readers to explore places and characters who connect us to the grand tapestry of human wisdom, kinship, and purpose.

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