South America | Bolivia – Peace in Mississippi
‘Alli, por arriba’
Up there in the mountains, thats where we would find the ruins of Incaracay. The friendly man got out of the jeep by a small house and we continued to climb up into the labyrinth of summits above Sipe Sipe.
We stopped several times for a look around but the ruins continued to elude us. It was late in the afternoon and we decided that it was best to make camp and continue the search in the morning.
We chose a peaceful summit that was encircled by large stones and set up the tent. The Cochabamba valley sprawled below us and by the time we had prepared our home for the night the city had exploded into a shimmering sea of lights mirroring the heavens above. This was the most spectacular site we were yet to find and, despite the biting wind, it was a pleasure to cook our dinner surrounded by 360 degrees of Bolivia’s magical vistas.
Just as we were drifting off to sleep we were startled by the drunken calls of a few men in the valley just below us. We stepped out of the tent for a look around and saw the light of a lantern about 150 meters below us. The light was soon extinguished and the calls ceased. Jana was nervous but I tried to convince her that it was only a few drunken campesinos on their way home and nothing to worry about. This was a mistake that almost cost us our lives.
We layed back down and were in a light sleep when the calls began again around 2:00 am. The shouts were close and getting closer and accompanied by the shrill call of a horn. We had just barely gotten our boots on as the first stone shattered the windsheild of our jeep. I peered out of the opening in the tent to see a group of 12 to 15 drunken campesinos, men and women, begin to shower the jeep and the tent with large stones. I hit the button on the remote to activate the jeep’s alarm hoping to scare them off but that was clearly not going to happen. Total panic.
I screamed out for them to stop, lying by telling them that we had children in tent, but I was only met with obscenities and more stones. The sharp stones ripped through the rain cover of the tent as Jana slipped out of the back entrance. The group was less than 5 meters from us, standing to one side of our camp. Having two entrances/exits in the tent proved to be the difference between life and death though at the moment survival hardly seemed an option.
Realizing the futility of trying to retaliate I escaped through the back to the stones where Jana was hiding, abandoning all that we had to our violent attackers. Through nothing short of a miracle our escape went unnoticed though we had to cross a flat area of about 5 meters in plain view of our assailants.
We jumped down the steep incline, stumbling and falling in the darkness of the night. The riot above us continued. We could see enough to realize that we were on the edge of a 15 meter sheer drop so we scrambled along the embankment to a small cluster of bushes just 30 meters below. This must have been about the time that our tent was damaged enough for the campesinos to tell that we were no longer inside. Lights and stones showered the immediate area as at least half of the group turned its attention to finding the escaped gringos.
We remained frozen, there no was nowhere to run. Surrounding us were only smooth stretches of light colored stone that would have revealed our position within the first steps. Above us the haunting call of the Potutu (a Quecchuan battle horn) continued to recruit reinforcements from the darkness beyond. The unrelentless sound of the frenzied destruction was maddening.
All we could hope for was that they would give up their search for us and content themselves with the spoils of their madness. Our only option was to wait it out and hope that after they had left that the jeep would start and we could tear down the mountain to the city lights more than 1000 meters below. These hopes faded as a group of three men approached from the road below and pulled large stones from the roadside effectively blocking our escape route. After this they scoured the embankment, where we were, with their flashlights. Don’t breathe, don’t even blink.
Once this group had reached the others they set about puncturing all of the tires. There was now only one way out, on foot, through rough mountain terrain that they surely knew better than we did. Emotions ran wildly through my head, I thought of all of our possesions, of the jeep, I wondered if our day had come and if this lonesome spur would become our grave, I felt the weakness and helplessness of not being able to protect my Love, I felt fear and sadness as I hugged Jana’s shivering body, unable to comfort or reassure her of our survival.
These feelings tore at our souls for two of the longest hours of our lives while the madness above had become a grand fiesta. Occasionally stones still fell down the bank and in one moment a series of stones fell directly around us. I sat with my knife in one hand and a can of pepper spray in the other. Sure that they now knew where we were I waited for the first bastard to come. Luckily, for all parties involved, he never came and the cries of victory and the whine of that damned horn began to fade into the still of the night.
Still not knowing if there were people watching from above we moved as fast as the unknown terrain allowed. We fell into narrow gorges, climbed boulders, cut ourselves on sharp stones and thorns stopping at the slightest sound or call. The fear didn’t end it was only amplified in the silence of the night.
We spent five hours descending from the mountain, retracing our steps many times after reaching impassable cliffs and gorges. The descent was eternal and we were completely exhausted when we walked onto Sipe Sipe’s main plaza.
We must have been a wild sight indeed, Jana dressed only in her long underwear, thorns and burrs covering our clothes and hair, and the fear of death still etched deeply in our faces.
After hearing our story the police were most interested in seeing if we had over-extended our visas and it took 5 minutes to explain the illegible stamp that we had recieved when our visas had been extended three weeks before in Sucre.
Once the police realized that they couldn’t extort any money from us for visa infractions they began to show interest in returning to the scene of the crime and bringing the jeep back down the mountain. We hired a bus and drove with two policemen, four inner tubes and a patch kit, back up into the mountains that we had just fought so hard to leave.
It took an hour to reach the site and it was heartbreaking to see the senseless damage. Our tent lie in shreds, the jeep was horribly dented and was missing all of its windows, most of our possesions were scattered about the area broken, ripped, burned and ground into the Earth. This had not been a robbery, the main intention had been to kill us and destroy all that we had. Cold chills ran through my spine and it took a lot to swallow the stone in my throat. It still wasn’t the time to let my fear and anger fall in tears, not yet.
We gathered all that we could and set about repairing the punctured tires as the police left to question some people working in a field below us. Fortunately the f***ing monkeys that had attacked us had not figured out how to open the hood or they would have surely inflicted more damage than we could have fixed. As it was, they had only attempted to push the car over the edge of the mountain but failing to take it out of first gear they gave up after only 4 meters. (I would love to have film of that pathetic scene !) This ignorant attempt did destroy the starter but after 4 long hours we had replaced the inner tubes, gotten the wheels pumped up, and were then able to push start the jeep.
Shortly thereafter the police returned with the news that they knew who had done it and that in 30 minutes the perpetrators would be meeting us at the junction of the road and a small footpath somewhere below, to return the things that they had kept for themselves. I found this hard to believe but it was in fact true. We reached the location and there we saw a group of thirty or forty people. The police instructed us to remain in the jeep while they picked through the remnants of our belongings and kept what they wanted for themselves. This we only realized later as we pieced the sequence of events together, remembering when they had asked us to ‘make sure that everything was there’.
We picked through the backpacks, relieved to find the camera and our films from the last 2 months. We told the police that there was still a lot missing and we mentioned a few items and, after dissappearing behind a hill to where the group now was, they returned with exactly these items, not more. By that time our list of missing possesions was now longer but the police said that that was all that was there. During that whole time one of the police had made several trips to the bus that was parked in front of us and I am now sure that a few of our things are now in their possesion.
In the process of recovering our things I was led back to the group of laughing campesinos. The leader of the group was introduced to me and the police had to hold me back as I stared into his cowardly eyes. I ran my index finger across my throat in a pointless threat but it was now over and we were alive, there was nothing more to be done.
The police told us that the locals had suspected us of being cattle thieves. Two tourists, in a small jeep, roaming the Bolivian countryside stealing cows from the poor campesinos. It was a joke but it was enough for the police to let them go free. Later we learned that two tourists were murdered in their car while sleeping at the ruins just a year before. As the politics of tourism dictate, all remains quiet and the murderers are still, at this moment, working their fields, tending their animals, and waiting for the next tourists to pass the night in their mountains.
There are many more details, forced deals with shady characters, more corruption and deceit, and avenues of ‘justice’ that dead-end at the protective walls of bureacracy. Perhaps there is more that we could have done to keep this from happening to someone else. Perhaps there are things we could have done to prevent its happening in the first place. But then again ,I still believe that all that happens does so for a reason. Finding the sense in this story still eludes me but there will be a reason and I hope that I will understand the lesson…someday.