This is something, my wife Wilma wrote a few years ago. It is still worth reading though.
The thin cold air at 12,000feet makes my head spin and I feel a little nauseous and unsteady. But what a view! I am on top of the world!
The bright sunshine pierces the thin air and the deep black shadows etch out pillar after pillar along the cliff face. The soft pebbly rock of these barren grey mountains sculpts easily by the wind and rain. The resulting cliff is deeply gullied even leaving freestanding pillars where the rock has retreated, the next row will soon stand freely like sentinels or collapse in a dangerous heap for lack of support, landslides are a constant danger.
The range of giant mountains stretches out on either side of me, cradling the city of La Paz in its embrace. From a distance the sides and bottom seem to erupt with a profusion of scattered small blocks, the dwellings being made mostly from the stuff of the earth. Only in the central plateau rises a shiny modern city of white plaster and concrete and glass towers, but they are also planted on the soft eroding rock, which will last the longest, I wonder?
The thunder clouds part and I lift my gaze only to be stunned by majestic Illumani. The snow capped volcanic peaks soar to over 21,000ft. Breathtaking Illumani, source of myth and legend, reigns queen of the giant mountains. A geologist’s paradise!
The little church clings precariously to the mountainside and I cross the cobbled road in anticipation. The congregation, half of which seem to be children under ten, sing heartily to the accompaniment of one electric piano and four primary school boys on zampoñas (pan pipes). It is just as well for at 11,000 ft. my heart is beating a little too fast and I can’t quite make a whole line of “Majesty” in one breath.
People start to stream forward to put their offering in the box. I am very conscious of being the only fair haired person present and as I hate being conspicuous I asked the little boy next to me to go up and put in my offering. Silvana had put him there because he had been naughty, but he accepted the money with a brilliant white smile and walked to the front – the wrong way round the church! Now, I wondered, why did he do that? As he passed all his friends in the front row he proudly held out the note to show it off to them, then with head held high and triumphant smile he pushed into the line and put the money in the box. Perhaps it isn’t an attitude that we would want to encourage but it was so funny that those who noticed couldn’t help it and just burst out laughing.
He came back and sat beside me and I asked his name, he bowed his head and whispered shyly, “Jonah”. I looked at him more closely, his blue black hair shone, his eyes twinkled, and he smiled radiantly, but the cheeks of his brown face were dry and rough, weathered by cold, wind and sun, just like the ancient mountains, but he was only five. His hands and shoes were dusty and his clothes old and stained by playing in the dirt. An Aymara. A child of the earth.
The highlight of today’s service was a children’s cantata. The little choir of eight pretty girls and two well-scrubbed boys were robed in cream ponchos edged with traditional cloth. They sang their hearts out, “I am only a child but I want to serve him”. Nine other pieces followed and all from memory. They were fantastic. The congregation spontaneously applauded, they deserved it.
A young Aymara man, a student at CCM, preached a very biblical sermon. It probably flew at the height of Illumani over the heads of most worshippers, and certainly wasn’t aimed at the children, but very promising, a future leader no doubt. A missionary’s paradise!
It was such a short visit and already I was on my way back to the airport. The cobbled streets were strangely empty of cars, but not of people. Short stout La Paz women ambled by at a leisurely rate, their colourful gathered skirts swinging almost to their ankles. Today many were out for a stroll in their Sunday best, satin skirts with deep fringed shawls around their shoulders, long plaits, (augmented by black wool tassels if necessary), hanging to the waist and topped by a tiny bowler hat. Others carried a baby, or was it bag of potatoes? It was hard to tell, since it was wrapped in a multicoloured awayo cloth and tied to their backs. What an interesting people. Once again I am captivated by the exotic! An anthropologist’s paradise!