Burning Fields and the Bolivian Border

Leveling the Barrel

Each Peruvian town has its own trademark.

On a three-day road trip, our first stop is in the town of the bike cabs, where bike wheels fill the streets five abreast on market day. Here, Astrid finds the first bookseller we’ve seen. She returns to the car with a pile of reading material ranging from children’s history to a novel by the Peruvian Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa.

Next, we drive to Yauri, an isolated herding community with a huge American copper mine just over the hill. The town is close to dry, and we find the president of the community in line to get his water rights, the back of his hand marked with a red 26. He’s happy to have a site at his house, and he’s especially happy to have what’s left in our water jugs after we mix the concrete.

The lack of water isn’t the only problem in this town—as we look around, all the fields are burned black for several miles. The president tells us that the fields burned on election day, and no one in the community could get past the flames to vote. Though they believe the fire was no accident, they wouldn’t say who caused it. Now they are hoping for rain to re-germinate all the feed for their livestock.

The President's Wife Takes Us through the Fields

Towards the end of the digging, the wife brings her grandson over, and Mike amuses him by imitating pigeons, fishes, and flies. Mike also holds the level to the mud brick walls of the house. Apart from slight bumps in the material, they’re perfectly straight.

The road to get to our next site is neither straight nor paved, so we wait until day two to drive to Moho—“The garden of the Altiplano” on Lake Titicaca. Based on the assortment of modern steel and glass around the plaza, we judge that flowers aren’t the only commerce. Unfortunately, we turn out to be right. Though the Alcade of the town initially seems willing to help us, he can’t be convinced that we’re not from a rival petroleum company.

He hands us off to the town’s meteorologist, David, who is very well dressed for a weather man.  David climbs in the truck to show us around, but instead of taking us to a site, he tells us to drive further and further out of town. We pass small communities of fishermen as well as trout farms, finally ending up in a town not five kilometers from the Bolivian border.

Lake Titicaca

The weatherman wants us to talk to the mayor of this town, but he’s involved in a cultural ceremony. Lara doesn’t want a station this close to Bolivia anyway, and Astrid is worried about the political stability of this area. She says this is a place where people are not nice, and where they take justice into their own hands. Leaving town, we pass the biggest government building of all: the battered women’s shelter.

As we drive the meteorologist back, it becomes increasingly clear that he thinks we’re lying about something. After stopping us in an unfamiliar part of town, he gets out without pointing the way back to the main square and tells us he doesn’t want to help. Then he tries to take our picture. Astrid is quick to tell him he can’t.

After grabbing a quick lunch of grilled chicken and corn from a cart on the street, we clear out of town. Around a hairpin bend, clusters of soldiers guard the road with guns on their backs. Lara remarks that they’re watching the road from Bolivia to make sure nothing slips by.

We pass them and drive north to Rosapata, the town of the earthquakes. The mayor is hanging out in the town square in track pants, and he immediately agrees to help us find a site. He takes us to an old school now used as a warehouse, and we start digging in the back of the unused playground. The mayor tells us that they recently had a month of small tremors, and the people are scared.

The only shaking we encounter is from some serious off-roading as we move west toward Cusco. Despite its citified appearance, Carlos’ van can handle some pretty big ruts, especially on the way to our last two sites. To get to each, we drive across hoed fields to reach the houses.

Both stations are in herding communities, and both are at farms with lambs, puppies, and baby pigs. The animals are so cute that Jenny and I take a break from digging to play. Bit by bit, the holes are carved out of the rock. At our last site, the mountains sweep up from the grass of the valley, cupping an alkaline lake where pink flamingos are eating.


Before we can load the vans, the owner of the house runs out with a bowl of toasted grains for us. It tastes a lot like popcorn, and it makes a sharp contrast with the unfriendliness at Moho the day before. But on the drive back to Cusco, just as we start to forget, we see a bright line of fire wrapping the side of a hill.

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One Response to Burning Fields and the Bolivian Border

  1. Marilyn Harter says:

    I’m Jenny’s Aunt Marilyn, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your reports. Please don’t stop. Say Hi to Jenny for us. Thanks.

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