Waliki: Soothing a Weary Traveler

Jhobana welcomes Minga to Sorata

 Kamisast’asa? Jisa, Waliki? How are you? Are you well? This is about the extent of Aymara that I know. It’s all I can do to keep my Spanish rolling off my tongue. Still I love the Aymara guttural stops and diphthongs. Huayna Potosi (6088 m)  is one of mountains that floats its snowy head and it means the Young one. The Aymara are an old tribe, thousands of years old. Quakerism planted within the Aymara culture recently, 100 years ago. The Aymara food, language and clothes are all hewn from carving a livelihood in the high altitudes of the Andes. Aymarans are not immigrants like us Quakers in the US, most of us bringing Europe’s ways with us as we gather and pray. I wanted to learn any unique strands of Aymara Quakerism in my sojourn among Bolivians. “Is Bolivia Quakerism at its highest point?” you may ask mischievously.

My first week in Bolivia I was  acclimatizing to the new fauna and flora invading my body (I was sick to my stomach). I went to heal in Sorata. After a curvy bus ride, I sat with aplomb on the bench under palm trees. Fabio, a 9 year old merchant with wide eyes and even wider cheeks was selling cups of jello. Fabio put his tray down and happily taught me to count in Aymara. 2010 is the first year Aymara is taught in public schools alongside Spanish. How many eggs does a condor lay? 1,2,3…”maya paya quimsa” I repeated after Fabio.…Sixty years ago many Aymaras worked the land in a serf system where patrons forbade the indigenous to attend school.

In March 2011, the Pollca Pampa Residence in Sorata had 15 students. The residence can hold 20 total. Alicia Lucasi, the director spent months recruiting. Eusebio Jallarana sweated to refurbish the Quaker oasis during the summer break. These students need our prayers as they must go through the shock that any 14 year old feels as they leave home for the first time. The teens need to adjust to sharing a dorm room with 7 others, washing clothes, taking turns in a bathroom, (no peeing in the courtyard) and learning to apologize when taking up too much time on the laptops they share. When the school year started in February the Sorata school demanded more from students than the rural mountain elementary schools. At the Residence they aren’t spending half their time watching the llama herd or caring for the precious new-born calf. The local committee from the surrounding mountain villages comes to manage the Residence and keep the institution in the Quaker fold. Alicia has been wanting this wisdom of elders/ parents. For instance, Roberto Choque Chura said Friends could travel down the mountain sides to have a workday this spring.

  Sorata is beautiful, and a great place for me to recover.  If you stay in the Quaker Residence, you are 3 blocks from the town plaza, filled with tall palm trees imported from North Africa. This oasis is about 2,700 meters above sea level and is nestled under Huayna Ilampu (6,000 meters). Illampu in Aymara means thunder,  immediately demanding respect from climbers who esteem Illampu as the most difficult to scale of the Cordillera Real (Royal Range).

Sorata has 2 high schools, a lively market day on Saturday, many artisans, and is surrounded by 2 rivers, the Cristobal and Challasuyo. The large Quaker church is at the bottom of the hillside, with a cemetery flanking one side. Depending on how far up the ecological zone you go, you can witness lots of biodiversity. In the higher niche one can see condors, viscachas (rabbit cousins) and gold (yes, that coveted element gold). In the lowlands are parrots, monkeys, jaguars, and herons.

Sorata has more than charm. Many Bolivians say that when the Spanish came with their gold-lust, the Incans took as much precious metal from their commercial cities as possible to hide in Sorata. The mysterious caves of San Pedro outside of Sorata are filled with dark water which may reach all the way to Lake Titicaca. The Incans absconded the gold as far as Cusco and navigated their gold to the Lake, and then underground to Sorata. Another legend claims some people who walked into the caves never came out.

The students at Pollca Pampa are lively filling the courtyard with soccer, tag and washing. Inside are computers and projects. The guest room is charming with wooden floors, an arched bay window, and a functioning private bath. Volunteers have helped the youth make silkscreen shirts and also to grow a sustainable garden. There’s renewed interest in eating traditional foods like quinoa and zapillo. At night everyone settles down to study. The guardian of Huayna Potosi silently towers over the town, more comforting than any lullaby. Outside the Residence is a soft streetlight attracting flying insects. I was comforted watching the bats circling and darting above the light under the crescent moon. Visiting BQE in Sorata is exciting during the daylight and beautiful at night.

You don’t find Aymara Quakerism in the church; nor in the well-used Aymara Bible near the TV. It’s organic. It’s in Ofelía tying her braids before soccer, in Omar trekking with a Andean flute in his backpack, in the smiles as we eat together llajua and chuños (potatoes). “Gracias a todos” I say after supper. “Buen provecho” the teenagers tell me. I didn’t need a witchdoctor to tell me how healing my trip to Sorata was.