Part II--Down and Out in Morochata

Several hours after leaving Cochabamba, the bus, every one of its joints groaning, rounded the side of the mountain, and there, in the valley below, lay my destination. From the bus, Morochata, a town of 500 or so inhabitants, was dwarfed by the huge cliffs that vaulted high into the sky above it. The cluster of tin- and thatch-roofed adobe houses looked fragile at the foot of that implacable slab of rock, whose only distinction from the surrounding stark Andes was its lurid clay-red color, which seemed to brood over some dark mysterious secret life in the village below.

In a quarter of an hour the bus had made the descent from the mountain, braking every 20 yards or so, and had stopped on the road that ran just outside Morochata. I put my knapsack on my back and was pointed toward the restaurant where I was to meet my contact. There, seated at a table in an interior patio where the sun shone strongly, sat Padre Ray Herman.

He didn't look like the wan, grey-haired, dark-eyed priest I'd expected to encounter. He would have looked more appropriate sitting in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, a hot dog in one hand and a cold beer in the other. More than his red fleshy nose, more than his lethargic eyes, more than the deep clean wrinkles on his receding hairline, it was his hat that made him appear so unecclesiastical. It was the type of hat that one expects to find on a cigar-smoking bookie or on someone who scalps tickets at a football game. It was the hat that made me immediately think he must have been from the Bronx. But, as I was later to learn, and as his slow, almost laborious manner indicated, he was a 100 per cent Midwesterner, from Indiana.

Padre Ray was to travel to one of the tiny outlying communities around Morochata, where he was training a catechist to administer masses and perform marriages and baptisms. All of the campesinos in the area were ostensibly Catholics, having been converted by missionaries like Ray over the decades. But they still lived the traditional life of the Quechua Indians, and were thus often Catholics only in name, still believing in the ancient pagan gods. El padre wanted to see to it that they became good practicing Christians.

So, while Ray was out in the campo, I would walk around the streets of the pueblo and try to talk with the villagers. In contrast to the peasants in the countryside, many of the inhabitants of the town proper were not Indians; if they had been, any communication would have been out of the question. Quite a few of the townspeople were cholos, mixed Indians and whites who were caught between the traditional life style of the Incas and the life of Western society to which they aspire. In their trips to Cochabamba and to other cities in the valley, they observe a life style that makes them feel backward. The cholos fill the positions of schoolteacher, restauranteur, shopkeeper and administrator. They form the upwardly mobile sector of the Bolivian countryside. I hoped to be able to find some who would not be shy, who would be able to talk about their customs, their work and their political attitudes.


I stopped at one of the tiny tiendas or stores clustered in one stretch of the main street. There was really very little to choose from--some hard candy, oranges and bananas, a tasteless variety of popped corn, cocoa leaves to ward off the winter cold, some tins of canned fish. All of the food had to be bused in from Cochabamba, down in the valley, and hence was sparse and expensive. I decided to buy some peanuts. Not that I was very hungry; rather, I hoped to use them as a sort of bribe to entice people to talk to me. I had to establish my innocent intentions to these people who were so suspicious of outsiders. The woman who owned the store, wearing shabby modern clothes rather than the traditional bulky skirt and heavy woolen top of the Quechua Indians, handed me the peanuts wrapped in a piece of newspaper. She then moved quickly to the other side of her stall, barely acknowledging my gracias.

Armed with my peanuts, I walked away from the center of the village. Two-story adobe structures lined the street. These were not the miserable hovels that one sees massed in the slums of La Paz or Cochabamba. They were solid, and only occasionally did one see a crack in the wall. And, in contrast to the piles of garbage that collect in the urban neighborhoods, here the streets were virtually spotless. I stopped at one house where a man was digging at some newly-sprouted crops that popped out of well-groomed furrows. In the small yard adjoining the house there were a couple of pigs eating out of a feeding trough. In the corner was a large, hemispherical earthen oven, where the farmer's wife baked bread. A pile of freshly-cut eucalyptus wood lay next to the oven. The man, very small and with a rough wizened face, had walked up to within a few yards of me and stopped, his wooden hoe in hand. I indicated the peanuts in my hand. He broke into a broad smile, and pointed with his free hand to his mouth. He had no teeth. What could I do in such a situation? I nodded slightly, muttered "Le siento," I'm sorry, and moved off.

I was beginning to feel despondent. The only white people who had ever appeared in this outpost were missionaries. I still wanted to find out about the villagers and about their farms and fiestas, their schools and homes. Suddenly, as I walked along, I saw a white cloth at the end of a wooden pole that protruded from the open doorway of a house. I had an idea. Throughout the entire Cochabamba valley the white flag marks the spot where chicha is sold.

Chicha is the national alcoholic beverage, made of fermented corn. It has a slightly bitter, unpleasant taste. Many women in the valley undertake the long process of drying, sprouting, crushing, and aging the corn kernels in order to supplement the often meager income provided by their household's farm. The watering spots marked with white flags are almost always the social centers in these rugged mountainside communities. In fact, one can almost go so far as to say that chicha is the lubricant of the nation, loosening Bolivian mouths and minds into an animated, sometimes raucous revel.

I heard hearty laughter and loud, chicha-induced talk coming from the deep recess of the bottom floor of this two-story house.

The room was dark, and the sense of a netherworld was heightened by the almost complete lack of furniture and by the dampness that seemed to peel off the earthern walls. A crowd was gathered here, an animated crowd already for into the afternoon's cocktails. Five men sat shoulder-to-shoulder on a wooden bench, each either laughing or grinning in a euphoric state of intoxication. In the center, towering above all with his broad square shoulders and stout chest was Don Julio, the policeman of the village. The word "Don," a vestige of Spanish gentility, perfectly fitted the pride that glowed in his roughly handsome, mustachioed face as he talked in a rush of Spanish I could scarcely make out. His green uniform and the epaulets on his shoulders indicated that he was a military officer, as were all of the nation's police force. The sole official authority in the pueblo, he had to see to it that all ran smoothly.

Don Julio was more educated than most of the villagers, and so he, and, by deference, the others, did not hesitate to welcome me as a visitor to their small town. "Hola, amigo, venga y toma con nosotros!" Come and drink with us! he cried and beckoned to the woman in the corner to bring me a glass and a pitcher of chicha. "Norteamericano, no?" he asked, looking knowingly at the men beside him, peasants who obviously felt a bit uncomfortable in my presence. I told them a little about my background, about my work in Cochabamba, and why I was in Morochata. They all laughed when I told them about my momentary ascent into the priesthood.

Don Julio dominated the conversation. He would begin answering my questions even before they were half-stated, unable to wait longer lest I say something that might cast a shadow on the life of this, his pueblo. "No," he said proudly, "we have no trouble with leftists here. We are good people in Morochata, no Communists or atheists." Another glass for our guest, he signaled to the woman when he noticed I had emptied the pitcher. A second, and then a third glass more, despite all of my protestations as I felt myself going a bit dizzy. The room was beginning to expand, and the street outside seemed to be unrolling like a magic carpet and sailing through the air.

Don Julio began arguing with the chicha woman, who criticized the government for the rapidly-increasing cost of living. "It is very difficult to make money on chicha now," she said. "It is so expensive to make." Don Julio seemed outraged, and launched into a long defense of the government. I decided to take my leave. They wanted me to stay for more, but no, I told them, I really couldn't. I had to meet with el padre. I went into my pocket for money, but, of course, they wouldn't let me pay. I thanked them and tottered out of the chilly room. I heard birds singing, saw women satiated with love, felt the friendly rays of the sun: God was in his heaven and all was right with the little world of Morochata.

I found Padre Ray back in his chambers, poring over a Spanish Bible in preparation for the sermon he would give at mass the next day. After a few minutes there was a knock at the door, and a campesino walked in, hat in hand and shoulders bent over in what looked almost like a caricature of humility. "Padre, por favor, pudiera venir al cementerio, para rezar por nuestro companero?" So the priest, his face impassive, put on his black vestment, and we were off to the cemetery to say some prayers over the body of a campesino awaiting burial.