Archives for July 12, 2018

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

Day 10 – A clandestine “taxi” ride to Uyuni

It was 4:00pm but the hot Andean sun would be setting soon enough and then the icy cold, dark Andean night would envelop us.  Uyuni was a good 3-4 hours away.  We set our belongings down at the side of the road and prepared to wait.  A bus had just passed, but it was full.  We’ll wait for the next, maybe it will come in an hour or so.  I figured we would eventually find a bus with room and arrive in Uyuni some time around 9:00pm.

The woman next to me, also with her belongings and teenage son placed curbside had just begun to sharply question our origin, where we were going, what we were doing, etc.  when a battered white station wagon scooted up.

“Uyuni?” asked the woman to the driver.  He nodded and quick she scooped up her belongings throwing them in the back he had just opened and whisked her and her teen inside.

“Lets go,” she shouted at me.  I hesitated.  It was not a taxi and I had been warned many times about being careful not to get into private cars without knowing the drivers.  I asked the driver how much it would cost.  30Bs he said.  I was not sure.

This was a woman and she seemed confident.  The driver, a non-descript, pudgy, middle aged man, was still outside waiting for us to load our items.  My daughter dutifully stayed with them as I leaned inside the car and whispered to the woman, “Is it safe?”

“Yes, Yes,” she said, “we’re lucky. I’m just going to Seravuyo, but he’s going to Uyuni.  It’s fine.  Lets go.”

  1. It was late, night was coming and if we were lucky we would get to Uyuni by dusk.

“Lets do it,” I called to my daughter and we all piled into the car and sped down the long, straight, recently paved highway.   I hoped I had made a good call.

The woman it turns out was a quinoa farmer named Eva, who had just sold some quinoa in the local Challapata market and was heading home after the weekend.  Prices were climbing, she had made a good sale (570 a quintal) and her spirits were high.

Eva talked in length about her excellent quinoa farming boasting how she gets 60 quintals per hectacre from the 10-15 hectacres she plants (the average production boast is 20 quintals and most farmers actually clear about 12-15 quintals once the quinoa is sorted and cleaned).

She then went on to talk about Daniel, a red-haired , 28 year old researcher from the US who spent six years studying Sevaruyo’s llamas, learning the Aymara language, dressing in traditional woven wool pants, and eating all of the crazy, exotic dishes the women would cook for him.  The communities loved him and all of the women claimed him as their “son-in-law.”  Finally, the fateful day came when Daniel’s hard work at learning the language and writing about llamas paid off and he was offered a chance at a full time position somewhere in the US academic system and was never heard from again.  How she loved him.  But Eva said they were glad he never returned because it meant he had found good work in the US.  They are still saving his motorcycle and meek belongings left being though, “just in case.”  It’s been 6 years since he left…

Time went fast with Eva’s constant conversation and soon we were pulling into the dusty train yard of Sevaruyo.  She directed the driver where to stop and hopped out the car with her teenage son and leaving me with her cell number and an invitation to come and spend the weekend with her, left me and my daughter with the still unknown driver and a long desolate road ahead of us.

I took a deep breath.

“Come sit up here with me,” invited the diver reaching over to open the front door.  Not wanting him to fall asleep on the monotonous drive, I climbed into the bouncy, worn out front seat.  After all it was customary to accompany drivers on long rides to keep them awake.

With folklore music brightly playing we headed across the bumpy train yard and out to the open road once again.  The sun was progressing across the sky and I checked my phone – it seemed we would make it there by 6:30.

The driver saw me.  “We’ll be there by 6:30,” he assured me.  I agreed.

My daughter settled down into the wide back seat that was left all to her and we sped down the highway.  “Unknown Road” my phone’s Maps App likes to call Bolivia’s Route 5.

The driver identified himself as Alberto Ramos, a quinoa farmer from the times of his ancestors.  He was raised on quinoa, potatoes and llama in Santiago del Alto, where his family hand planted, hand weeded and hand harvested their quinoa.  Thrashing it and winnowing it to remove the chafe, scraping it several times to remove saponins by grinding it by foot in an ancient bowl cut stone, and then washing it several times before cooking with it.  “Quinoa is work,” he said.  “But we love it.”

He said he has 10 hectacres under production, using tractors, which he sells himself year-round.  He takes a few sacks (quintales) to market in Challapata every other week or so to smooth out the cash flow.

Ramos explained he was returning to Uyuni from Challapata where he is building his retirement home.  It is comfortable he explained, with 4 bedrooms, a kitchen living, room and dining room  It’s two stories.  And he’s building it himself by hand.  Though I am sure he has occasional tradesmen coming to help as well – brick layers, roofers, electricians.  Family members can be helping him too – especially if he is making adobe bricks, etc.  It is not unusual for people to slowly build their own houses – often over a 2-3 year period of time.

Ramos’ steady work comes from the Sofia chicken agency he sells for.  He has his own small “frial” or chicken and luncheon meats store where he also sells condiments such as mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard.  All from the Sofia Ltda., a well-known 40 year old Bolivian company. He sells about 35 slaughtered and cleaned chickens a week getting them delivered about twice a week in refrigerated trucks from Santa Cruz more than 18 hours away. Mark-ups are about 30% making the final price 14Bs ($2) for a smallish bird feet and all, and giving Ramos enough to live on.

The next day was to be Uyuni’s anniversary.  Ramos was planning on marching in the parade with the other Sofia distributors and frials.  Founded in 1889 as an outpost for moving minerals across the dessert to the Chilean ports, Salinas was now celebrating its 129th anniversary.

I’ll come by with my friends and visit you on the way to the parade!” Ramos promised.

We picked up another woman on the side of the road.  We were getting close to Uyuni and it was just starting to get cold and dark.

Ramos saw mw zipping up my feather jacket.

“What?” he asked. “It’s warm here.  This is not cold yet.  It’s warm.  If anything I should open the windows!”  he teased laughing.

The other woman settled herself in the backseat with my daughter.  Her thick knit tights apparent under her vast layers of ruffled skirts.  Wrapped in a knit sweater, dusty and dirty, with a huge amount of treasures tucked into an “aguayo” a large woven cloth she wore across her back, she somehow made it all fit in the back seat.  We ambled on.  The woman’s black dog was valiantly running after us nipping at the tires and barking loudly.

“He will tire and go home,” the woman assured us, unconcerned about her dog running around the darkening highway at night.

It had been a nice ride.  We saw scores of once elusive vicunas along the side of the road, driven closer to communities due to pasture loss from the 2014 quinoa invasion when all lands were plowed and planted for the soaring market prices quinoa was bringing.  When the prices crashed in 2015, so did many people’s desire to farm quinoa. The once tilled fields now lay fallow waiting for the slow growing highland dessert plants to reestablish themselves and anchor down the blowing topsoils and to bring food once again to the beautifully wild, elegant vicuna.

Uyuni appeared like crystal diamonds on the horizon.  Lights twinkling next to the volcanoes that appeared to float on the salt flats.  Visually lifted upwards from the expanse of white salt around them contrasting with the subtle tans and occasional tufts of dusty greens of the surrounding winter pasture.

It was 6:30.  The cold wind blew as the last of the rosy sunset slipped behind the mountains.  We pulled onto the grid of pacing stones, Uyuni’s downtown.  It still felt like the wild west outpost it had once been.  People wrapped in shawls and chulu hats with earflaps pulled down low on the head walked by.  We hurried into our hotel.  Happy to be “home” again.  The ride cost $4.50.  A room here is $11 a night.  North America’s poor become rich when in Bolivia.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

Day 9: Revisiting the “perfect quino town” of Capura.

At 8:30 Carlos and Miguel showed up to our Salinas hotel in a new Toyota Hilux to take us to AIPROCA’s monthly quinoa meeting in Capura, their rural quinoa community, a short 1 ½ hour drive away across dusty roads dotted with wild vicuna herds.  We had visited Capura in December 2016 for our Fair Trade quinoa research and it will be nice to see how things have progressed since then.  I remember Capura as being very organized, clean – a model quinoa town.  I asked the young men in their 20s if it was still like that and they agreed, smiling.  Miguel and Carlos are both from the large commercial town of Huari where the regional brewery is housed.  Carlos married into the community and is related through this marriage to Miguel.  He works as a carpenter in Oruro and Miguel is a taxi and private driver also in the large city of Oruro – 3 1/2 hours away.   They come to Capura for the monthly quinoa meetings and when any quinoa work needs to happen.  Otherwise the town is left under the care of just 2-3 families who stay there largely to take care of the llama herds.  There is a school and health post, but like most rural centers now, they ae no longer staffed or used because there is no need for them.  There is no one in the community of closed up homes.

AIPROCA is a large producer community with its 100+ members each cultivating about 15 hectacres of land under their Fair Trade, organic certifications – with a market value of about $30,000.  They are careful to follow the guidelines set by Fair Trade Europe and keep accurate records of investments into certified sprays, natural fertilizers, testing, and other projects such as recycling, greenhouse gardening, and erosion control. We were invited to a breakfast and lunch and shared a prepared powerpoint presentation with them explaining market cycles, sales chains, and consumer research my UMass and SIT students had completed in earlier semesters – as we examined the existence of markets for Certified Royal Quinoa and rare gourmet quinoa varieties.  The good news that came from my studies was that the Fair Trade price farmers wanted for their quinoa and were not getting, 800Bs per quintal ($0.51 a pound or a 30% increase over today’s certified Fair Trade organic prices) would result in the cost of a finished packaged box of quinoa raising from the current price of $7 at the Brattleboro Food Coop to $8.  Most consumers, remembering the days when quinoa cost upwards of $12 a pound, said they would gladly pay that if the product had a better nutritional value and quality (which it did).

I shared this “proof of market” study with the US distributors, wholesalers and importers in the quinoa market chain.  None were interested in pursuing the marketing of quinoa varieties yet – there were busy enough with marketing the quinoa they did have – computing with others for new market sectors and loyal customers.

The quinoa producers from Capura enjoyed the presentation – though there were shocked at the final price that their $0.29 quinoa was sold at – they understood more clearly how and why the prices rose as the grain moved down the marketing chain.  They also understood what a mature market was and how product differentiation and the development of different market sectors were important for them to maintain their market position.

AIPROCA sells through SINDAN a large Fair Trade, organic quinoa exporter to Europe.  They are not so tied in with the European markets and who the final clients are of their quinoa, SINDAN handles that for them. The producers of Capura focus on what they do best, working together to grow large amounts of clean, healthy quinoa.  When not in the quinoa fields, families like Miguel’s and Carlos’ live in Oruro or Cochabamba, preferring the opportunity, education and ease of living these places bring – over the beautiful though windswept and dusty isolation of Capura.

After we finished our presentations, surveys, workshops, took photos, had lunch and said our goodbyes, Carlos and Miguel took us to Challapata – 1 ½ hours away, to drop us off at the bus stop to Uyuni and leave us for the next part of our quinoa adventure.

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 8: The original quinoa farmers of Alcaya

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Day 7 – Salinas’ quinoa farmers

Sitting on the warm sunny patio of Hotel Suk’arani, Thunupa, Neives and I spoke over glasses of “refresco” a sweet, ground toasted wheat drink which needed stirring each time a sip was taken. Thunupa was named by his mother for the volcano which dominates the Salinas landscape and is the beloved mother of so many folk lore tales.  Both Thunupa and Nieves had graduated from the Salinas high school a few years apart from each other.  Each chose to marry, raise families, and live in Salinas while working in their ancestral quinoa fields, Nieves’ being to the north and Thunupa’s being in the south.  This is where their similarities ended.

Thunupa quietly followed in his families’ footsteps growing quinoa as they always had, though with the additional help of a tractor now and as a member of the local APROQUIR producer group. He had 2 hectacres in production since prices were so low and with light fumigation, produced about 20 quintales of finished quinoa per hectacre which provided a supplemental income for the family and a health food source for his children.  He invests about $12 in fumigation, using natural pesticides, and earns about $3,000 a year (before paying membership fees for his growing group) with his quinoa production.  This is enough to cover basic costs but not provide much for investment or savings. “It’s for maintenance, nothing more,” explained Thunupa, referencing his small quinoa earnings.

Nieves was a much more active producer.  Since a child she was enthralled with organic quinoa production and has always been interested in nutrition, organic eating, and organic production.  She is a member of PROQUIRCA, another Salinas quinoa group with an organic certification from IMO-Cert that costs 3,000Bs ($428) per hectacre to maintain.  Nieves grows her certified organic quinoa in the community of Chayuquota and plants it both inside and alongside a vast crater left by a meteorite thousands (maybe millions) of years ago.  I asked if the quality or characteristics of her quinoa changed whether it was planted inside or outside of the crater and she said it as the same.  I had thought perhaps some special space minerals left from the meteorite would favor the quinoa inside the crater!  She takes much care with her quinoa investing into prevention applying more expensive, certified organic insecticides almost bi-weekly in the early growing season of the quinoa.  She talks eagerly of the different quinoa varieties she plants, psaqalla for puffed quinoa, chilpi to make ground toasted quinoa with for beverages, and the pantela and toledo used in soups.  She also produces black quinoa toasted and used as a chocolate flavor.  Nieve’s certified organic quinoa fetches a 15% – 20% higher market price than Thunulpa’s non-certified production.  However, as many producers point out, the costs in money and time for organic production, do not cover the extra they earn in the market.  Never-the-less, they maintain their certifications anyway, largely because of the commitment they feel for producing heathy food and caring for the earth.

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Day 6: The treasures of Salinas

Since 2015 I have been traveling to Salinas, the world quinoa capital and the site of some of the earliest evidence of cultivated quinoa, 5,000 years ago.  I’ve stayed at military bases and Quinao Research Centers and felt I knew the tiny town well, tucked into a corner of the high Bolivian altiplano, fed by fresh springs and guarded by the Thunulpa volcano to the south and the vast salt flats to the east.  However what a surprise I found when this time when I was invited to stay at Hotel Suk’arani, a combination of the Aymara worlds, Suka Rani,“always full.”  This gem of a hotel, which had been in Salinas for 10 years, was tucked away into the mountain skirts above the hospital where I had last held meetings with the women quinoa growers – under the leaking room of the unfinished emergency room.  I had never noticed the rustic hotel perched above the village offering amazing views of the volcano, quinoa fields and distant salt flats.

Enzo the hotel attendant and well-known tour guide was taking a year off from his hectic life conducting tours in La Paz and Uyuni to relax a bit in his own home town of Salinas, reconnect with the family, land and people, catch up on his own archeological research, and help to improve the tourism for Salinas.  A largely undiscovered gem from a tourism perspective, Salinas offers the quiet colonial town pace of life paced by the noon time ringing of the lone church bell, carefully placed by the Spanish in the adobe tower they built 500 years ago, and the 8am and 6pm honking of the bus horn signaling its departure to the city of Oruro, now just 4 hours away.  Other than that, the silence of the sturdy hills and vast flats is dotted with bird twitters, children’s laughter, the put-put of a motorcycle motor coming in from the neighboring countryside, and an occasional barking dog.

Salinas offers, besides a vast network of quinoa production and export – natural carbonated mineral waters which are said to be a cure for most any ailment, and a vast array of ruins from pre-inca civilizations.  Once called “The Machu Pichu of Bolivia” by the Peruvians, the largest of the ruins, Alcaya, was located a short 1 ½ hour walk away.  First I had meeting scheduled with Thunupa Garcia and Nieves Catari, two young quinoa growers in the region.  Later Enzo promised he would arrange for us to have a tour of Alcaya.  It was turning out to be a great day.

Hugo Lopez, a Bolivian folklore music professor at the city university and native of Salinas, built the hotel in 2006 as a way to invite guests to his hometown.  The hotel has native design features such as cactus wood doors and furniture, a round stone structure for its central rooms and tall, round thatched roofs.  Walls are made of adobe.  Floors are polished tropical woods.  Handmade art and woven tapestries add color to the muted tones of peach, sand and white walls.  My favorite feature was the array of handmade tables featuring glass overlaid boxes which housed a large array of local treasures such as pre-colonial ceramic pieces, hand knapped arrowheads and stone axes, minerals, and different types of quinoa seeds.    We were welcomed every morning to a smiling Enzo with hot coffee, yogurt, puffed quinoa and toasted bread.  He was a gracious host treating us to little snacks during the day and a hot tea at night before bed.   Used to roughing it on our own or staying with busy families, it was nice to be treated as such a special guest for a moment.