If not now, when? I was finally in my bunk. It’s a very long plane ride from Miami to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. There was only a little time to eat at the airport while porters loaded the Land Rover and we were off. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at 13,500 feet, so I was gasping for breath as we boarded the Land Rover and headed through the city to the white-knuckle death roads that would take us further up the Andes.
It was about 4 ½ hours before we arrived at our destination, Tacachia, a small community of about 50 Aymara people in a small strip of land between a river and an incredibly steep mountain. I was there producing a documentary for Engineers Without Borders, my favorite non-governmental organization (NGO). After a light meal of some kind of porridge, we gathered to listen to some children singing around a campfire, and headed to the cramped little structure that would be home for the next two weeks.
The sky was as black as I have ever seen it. Two peaks rising from the mountains just beyond the village could be made out, and in the space between them, a full moon and The Southern Cross. “How cool is that?” I said to myself, taking it all in as long as my weary legs and breathless lungs would let me. It was time to lie down and try to get some sleep. This was my second time in Bolivia, and I knew that whatever lay ahead for me in the next couple of weeks was going to be hard on the body. At those elevations, everything is hard on the body.
Tired as I was, it took me a long time to get to sleep in the tiny bunk meant for a much shorter man. I had just drifted off when I was wakened by a distant and rhythmic sound that reminded me, for all the world, of a base drum. I was exhausted, sleepy, and out of breath, but I just had to find out what was going on. I slid into my cargo pants, threw on a fleece shirt, and walked out into the darkness.
It was so dark I could barely see, but as I got a few steps away from the door, my ears picked up another sound. It was the sound of flutes. Even though my body was crying “no”, I disregarded its plea, turned back to my bunk, grabbed the camera and a small flashlight, and headed off toward the sound that had awakened me.
Pan flutes accompanied by a base drum… that was what had awakened me. There was a group of men standing in a circle playing something that sounded more like a cacophony than a song and a fellow on one side beating the big drum. It was something unlike anything I had ever heard or seen before. They obviously knew what they were playing, but I hadn’t a clue. I inched closer hoping my flashlight coming their way wouldn’t be seen as disrespectful. Not a problem.
The light on my camera didn’t bother them a bit as I turned it on and raised it to my shoulder. In fact they seemed to like it. They had been standing in a circle, and as I began shooting, I eventually ended up in the circle with them. To say it was an incredible experience would be understating what I was feeling. Even having spent many years involved with indigenous people in their home environments, this was by far the closest I had ever come to being more than just a witness. I felt part of the group. The flute players continued to play away, serious looks on their faces as the drummer continued banging away.
Then suddenly everything stopped. Like I said, I knew they were playing music, but I could not figure out the time, the tune, a verse or a chorus. It was all still just a cacophony to me, but I guessed when they stopped they were at the end of what they had been playing. A couple of the men said a few words in a language I didn’t understand, but that was about it. A little mumbling and adjusting of the pan flutes was all that seemed to be happening. That’s when things changed. The conversation between the men increased, and the drum player stooped down to pick up something.
It appeared to be a bag. He messed with it a bit and passed it to the fellow next to him. I tried to see what it was as it was passed around the circle but couldn’t quite make out what it was. However it seemed to pick up the conversation. Still being in the circle with the rest of the guys, the man next to me bumped my shoulder with his and passed the bag on me.
I looked down to find I had just been handed a bag of coca leaf. What was I to do? I looked down and thought to myself “Here I am, way the hell up in the Andes mountains, with a bunch of Aymara pan flute players. I’m under a full moon and the Southern Cross and have just been handed a bag of coca leaf. If not now, when?”
I turned to the man who had given me the bag, looked him in the eye and down at the bag and asked “por favor?” He and the entire group broke out in uproarious laughter and said “si” several times in between laughs. I reached in the bag, grabbed a handful of leaf, stuck it in my mouth and began chewing away. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing but figured I would get the hang of it pretty soon. I did and added yet another item to my growing list of things I had never done before.
I’m not sure how long I was out there. Eventually some of the people I had traveled with became aware of the music and joined us, dancing and laughing, but the bag had long since been put away. The flute players seemed to really enjoy the company and the attention and continued playing on into the night. Form that moment I believe I became “Senor Por Favor.” I believe so because on some occasions someone would come up to me and ask “por favor?” which always lead to a little more leaf chewing.
Eventually I headed back to the bunk. I was exhausted and sleep came easily as I recounted the evening’s events and thought to myself about my answer to the question I always ask myself when presented with something I have never done before. “If not now, when?”
Jeanne Kay Collins
As a flute player myself, I collect all types of flutes. I have a similar flute in my collection that I was given to me on the Peruvian side of the Andes by a Peruvian Flute player.
Rumor is that coca leaves cure altitude sickness – hope it worked for you!