Friday, September 19, 2014

La La La—Flashback to Bolivia

The time I spent in Bolivia was often fantastic. Just the other day I saw the most astonishing video and it took me right back into the surreal adventure of the times I spent there. The video—for the song “La La La” by Naughty Boy—has been out a year, but this is the first I heard of it. Just let me say it’s amazing.

For me, this video captures what is most wonderful about Bolivia: its landscapes, culture, and people. These are the scenes I remember. These are the people. Those are the mountains, buildings, and sounds. I walked those streets in La Paz, I stood on those corners, and they still look the same except for the cars being more modern. I see the salt flats at Uyuni. Walk the railroad graveyard. Gaze upon the city of Potosi and its fabled mountain Cerro Rico. Enter the mines to meet El Tío, as close as I’ll ever get to a primal god.

Bits and pieces of Bolivia appear in my writing all the time. The city scenes in Thick as Thieves owe a lot to the streets and alleys of La Paz, for example, though reimagined as more medieval and European. More directly, though, Bolivia appears in several of my shorter stories. If you’ve read “Moon Blood and Salt Flowers” (free here on my blog), you’ll know now where I came by the lonely expanses of the Altiplano and haunted Cerro Rico, the symmetrical mountain that rises above the once gilded city of Potosi—and also the deep scary mines where Amaya and Fernando fight for their lives. Another story “The Seventh Sacrifice” takes place in La Paz, on those very streets and with people much like those you see in the video.

This video is fascinating, too, because I can pull so much meaning from it. While in Bolivia I learned a lot about the culture and its stories (my mother in law was a trove of them). One of those folk legends, about a deaf boy who runs away from home, is reimagined through this video—which bears a curious resemblance to The Wizard of Oz in some parts. There's a popular version of the legend circulating on the internet and it’s pretty close. I heard it slightly differently, that the boy ran away from home saying he was going to help people and he does just that, leading up to taking on the powerful El Tío because he was the only one (being deaf) who would not succumb to the lord of the underworld's power.

That demonic figure at the end, El Tío, is very real to the Aymara people of the Altiplano. After being conquered by the Spanish, they blended the Catholic devil with their own god Supay, lord of the underworld and a very important dude. If offended, he could hide mineral deposits and make tunnels collapse, so keeping him happy is something miners take seriously. Statues of El Tío (bearing strong Christian influence, which is why he looks like the Christian idea of the devil and not his original version) pepper the mines of Potosi and to this day people bring him offerings of coca leaves, trinkets and jewelry, and mark the entrance to the mines with llama’s blood.

Keep in mind, too, that Potosi is a haunted place. Millions of indigenous people died mining Cerro Rico of silver for Spain. More died in the centuries since. Their ghosts remain. You can feel them everywhere. That mountain is filled with death.

There are other things, too. The "tin man" he meets in the gym looks like the Ekeko (iqiqu) figure my mother-in-law kept in her kitchen, except instead of looking prosperous he looks sad and downtrodden. Symbolism much? The figure of the scarecrow is dressed as a regional folk spirit known as a kusillo (or k’usillo) a kind of rustic buffoon. He appears in certain dances and at festivals, where he serves as a comic figure who may cause playful mischief but ultimately does no harm. And it’s notable that the boy’s benefactors—including his destination—are all native. The first person he meets when running away is a yatiri, an Aymara shaman, in traditional garb, who gives him the dog of the legend. Wearing traditional headwear, the boy leaves the city (the modern, non-Aymara world) for the symbolic world of the Aymara, populated by myths and symbols (and, again, that mountain). In so many ways, his is a creative journey, an abused boy’s flight toward meaning.

Anyway, I wanted to share this video because it has so much beauty and serves as a wonderful introduction to a rich culture and beautiful people too far, far away for most of my readers to ever visit for themselves. Yet I wish I could share them with you. This video is the best vehicle I have yet found for doing that. I hope you enjoy it. And if you do, there is a “Making of” video that shows and says just a little bit more. It too is well worth watching.

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