Wanders and Wonders
Between leaving Cochabamba at the end of November last year and returning a month ago the landscape here has altered dramatically. When I first arrived back in mid-January the sun:rain ratio meant ‘summer’ still seemed a not implausible description for this time of year in this bit of the Southern hemisphere. But the colour of the hills that circle the city signaled that something had changed while I was away. And then the sunny weather broke. And then it carried on breaking more and more frequently. And today, after a very wet Valentine’s, it is starting to feel like it’s been raining forever.
That’s not so pleasant in the city. Especially a city with narrow streets and severe traffic overcrowding combined with narrow pavements and poor drainage. But it does produce a marvellous sight when you take your eyes off the puddles and the speeding drivers and look to the horizon. When I arrived in Cochabamba a year ago from the perennially grassless environs of La Paz the lushness of the slopes was like that precious glass of water when you wake up hungover. Over the proceeding dry months I saw all that greenness frizzle away under the fierce Andean ‘winter’ sun. This time I’m in the Cochabamba valley for the very moist heart of the wet season. But happily I get to enjoy the wild exuberance that the rains bring to the vegetation here out in the campo itself, rather than dodging wheelspray in the city.
Thanks to the generosity of a friend who is here building bridges in isolated communities, I am once again enjoying a rent-free existence out in Tiquipaya. I was last here in August – at the driest of dry times – looking after the boss’ house and animals and keeping his garden hosepiped. Tiquipaya enjoys some name recognition as the actual location of President Morales’ 2010 cumbre – the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. While most people here make a living from the land, it is also the desired location for many expats and mixed nationality couples who prefer the green meadows, Sunday market and more relaxed ambience here to the puddles and huddles of Cochabamba. Tiquipaya is still the countryside – just. I can walk a few minutes from the house (when it finally stops raining) and be in stunningly verdant meadows that glow in the late afternoon sun and hum with the sounds of crickets and bees and birds. But development goes on apace out here, and what was presumably once a small pueblo is inexorably turning into a suburb of Cochabamba.
Over the weekend I got to see from a spectacular vantage point how the Cochabamba valley is filling up with city. Last week was wonderfully hot and sunny – I felt very smug as the mercury plummeted across Europe. So some friends and I planned a hike for the weekend. Of course, the clouds rolled in on Friday, but we took a gamble and headed west out of the city to plot a course through the valley sides above the village of Viloma. Our trufi dropped us off on one side of the Rio Viloma that divides the village, and the route we were inventing started on the other side. It took us quite a long time to get across the river. It being wider and faster than anticipated due to the rainy season, we spent an hour or so plucking up the courage to ford it with two days’ worth of gear on our backs. There was a suspended platform to carry people over but no one on the other side to (wo)man it. But as we were rolling up our trousers we were very happy to see a group of figures appear on the far bank. For a peso each they hauled us across two at a time using a pulley and cable system. It was well worth the wait.
Ascending the valley on what turned out to be a warm, dry afternoon we passed bumper crops of onions and potatoes and some incredibly friendly locals washing carrots in the irrigation channels or gathering grass for their livestock. Our GPS-plotted route became a mere guideline to be ignored once we could read the landscape itself, and an afternoon of forging a trail through shrubs and clumped grasses, and across ravines carrying rushing mountain streamwaters, led us to a camping spot with a total view of the city in front of us. As night fell (and the rains got closer) the sea of lights grew with the receding tide of the day. The relentless urban sprawl that is putting so much pressure on Cochabamba’s natural resources and threatening the existence of the village communities we had passed through looked magical in the dark.
Bolivia faces severe problems in terms of water availability and access thanks to climate change and related extreme weather events (hence the high level of in-migration from flood- and drought-afflicted areas to the cities). But it certainly felt like there was plenty water enough around when we woke up on Sunday morning. Cochabamba had disappeared entirely behind a think veil of mist that would take until early afternoon to clear, just in time for the thunderstorms to begin. That made for some very atmospheric walking up through hillsides where beautiful, twisted, ancient-looking kawiña trees loomed out of the fog, and sudden blooms of colour from the amazingly diverse flora stood out like secret omens against the beaded grey-green grass.
We were on the highest point of the ridge we had chosen as a route home when the first spine-tingling rips of thunder sounded above us. Along with the increasingly heavy rain and the slow-going pathless way down through closely-gathered gorsey thickets, that gave us plenty of motivation for getting lower quicker. It was an exciting scramble down to the dirt road, and a wet ride on truckbed and trufi to get home to hot showers and dry clothes. And it’s been raining ever since.