SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 12
Tarija & El Valle de Concepcion, southern Bolivia
“You have to do it!” the drunken 60-year-old slurred as he attempted to drape his arm around my shoulder. I dodged his advances and gestured to the teenager opposite, hoping she would rescue a fellow female from this nightmare. She stared back blankly.
“Go on!” he ordered.
“No, gracias,” I pleaded for the umpteenth time, but it was useless.
A three-metre-long pipe with one end attached to a casket of wine was thrust my way. “I don’t drink alcohol!” I whinged once more.
“But wine isn’t alcohol!” the man chuckled, his head wobbling backwards as though he had just cracked the funniest gag known to pensioners.
The pipe lingered in my hands for a minute while I remembered my recent teetotal life. I hadn’t had more than a sip of booze in two-and-a-half years and I felt so much better for it. Now I was holding 300 centimetres of wine. Hesitantly I held the tube to my lips and gulped it down, instantly wishing that I hadn’t.
“See! It’s not like alcohol at all, is it?” Mr Drunk Man said.
No, it’s like bloody vinegar, I wanted to screech but my Spanish failed me. Instead I wobbled over to a table and tried to shake off the fuzzy head feeling.
“See, I told you she’d drink it,” the man triumphantly told the teenage girl.
“Yes Grandad,” she said.
Oh bloody hiccup hell, I thought.
It was day five working at a vineyard in El Valle de Concepcion (The Valley) in exchange for food, accommodation and Spanish practice. Tourists from Villamontes were in town and I was helping to show them around but instead of the wine being the main attraction, the English gringa (me) – clad in a million layers of clothes – soon became it. “Here’s my number,” Mr Drunk Man said. “Call me when you arrive in Villamontes and I’ll pick you up.”
My route changed instantly and Villamontes was scratched from my itinerary.
Prior to arriving at The Valley I was totally unaware that the country produced wine, I’d never seen it on British supermarket shelves. Chile and Argentina boast their achievements in the local Waitrose back home but Bolivia was a no-show, despite the oldest vineyard in Tarija being 400 years old. However, after sampling the local viño I now understand why – it’s quite unpalatable.
I’d ended up in Concepcion quite unexpectedly with a campervan of Jehovah Witnesses. I’d met them at a nearby town
and was taken along to the vineyards in their quest for more wine. They giggled and wobbled, clinking their glasses, and soon their religious conversion tactics were marred by the effects of the booze. We parted ways amicably – they headed back to Tarija to sober up and I wound up at a vineyard getting drunk.
The work in the bodega came to a halt as daytime temperatures plummeted by 20 °C, sending my short-lived short clad legs into three layers of trousers. I shivered away wondering what had possessed me to come to South America in winter. Perhaps it was Satan himself, or at least his underwear.
The Devil’s Underwear
“These are what we swear by in winter,” Mauricio laughed as he held up a pair of long johns at Tarijia’s Saturday market. “They’re the Devil’s underwear and they’re our best weapon against the cold.” He paused just long enough for an effect, then added, “And women. They’re complete passion killers!”
I’d left the vineyard, which had been wearing a sombrero of cloud for a week, and returned to Tarija to volunteer at a local organic garden. Mauricio was in the beginning stages of producing the Italian drink limoncello, Uyuni smoked salt and hot pepper oil with the help of foreign volunteers. In the mornings we’d work in the garden and in the evenings we’d put the world to rights.
“In Tarija we’re more Argentinian than Bolivian,” Mauricio said. “We support Argentina in football, my parents’ generation went to university in Buenos Aries and I’ve travelled more in Argentina than I have in Bolivia,” he mumbled while eating a bread roll, the traditional snack in Bolivia.
Indeed, Tarija does have a slightly Argentinian vibe with an air of affluence and grand houses. Even the people have a more European look than in the altiplano (highlands).
“We weren’t considered part of Bolivia, at least not officially, until 1936. ‘The Question of Tarija’ was drawn up then and we were governed by La Paz. And although we’re part of Bolivia, we don’t receive much, if any, assistance from the government. The road leading to the capital is a donkey track, only becoming a decent thoroughfare once it leaves Tarija province,” complained Mauricio.
I’ve travelled on numerous roads in Bolivia and it seems that none of them are particularly decent. I’m convinced night buses exist so passengers can’t see they’re about to plummet off the edge and down a mountain.
It wasn’t only the roads that seem to have issues in Tarija. The entire city was held hostage by the state electricity board as several power cuts immobilised the area. The local news stations cited an official who blamed the event on a monkey which had climbed its way onto the wires, while, I presume, it was looking for a midnight snack. Its body was never found. The second time round a parrot was held accountable. The third time the newspapers anticipated the culprit would be a bull, perfect for the English caption of bull****.
“Sabotage,” said Mauricio. “People are trying to oust out the new CEO of the state electricity.”
I never did find out the reason, the news had turned to the president’s spiritual guide who was found with 350 kilos of cocaine in his house.
When the lights were up and running I wandered along to the local university to find students who wanted to practise their English. Instead, I found English lecturers who wanted to practise theirs – several were unable to hold a conversation in the language they were teaching. I wondered if they were actually the maths professors, it wouldn’t have surprised me. The director of the university thought that organisation meant people knew the opening hours of the institution. Even that, I discovered, was open for discussion (in Spanish, of course).
PHOTOGRAPHS COPYRIGHT OF JANE BATCHELOR