Tomás Quispe was a carpenter in Concepción of Belém (Conception of Bethlehem), a village of mud and straw lost in the monotonous flatness of the Bolivian Altiplano, but in the absence of wood and work he is now the potter of the village where clay is still the essence, materially and the meaning of life.
Oruro, Bolivia … A crossroads, memory of hundreds of anonymous deaths, leading to the Indian village where the local transport sometimes stops to buy bags of coca leaves at low prices, which are then resold in the markets in Oruro, Cochabamba or La Paz.
Mud blocks for houses, for the walls, for the pig or goat pens: The people have the structure, consistency, and the dark and cracked complexion of the mud.
Seen from afar, the name read on the signs from a distance, Belém recalls, with its adobe huts with their flocks and shepherds, with its woolly donkeys and cows old and skinny, another village of biblical times where believers say Christ was born more than 20 centuries ago.
Towards the end of the village, you can see women in long skirts and even longer hats, squatting on potato crops, they have been there since before dawn and will be there until the afternoon, despite the terrible sun, despite the awful cold of the Altiplano.
It seems that they will end up crippled from so much weeding, their heads and hats remain forever at a level below their skirts, long, dirty skirts of vivid colours, contrasting with the absence of tones, and the entire dingy environment.
A few metres (kilometres?) behind, a barrier of mountains destroys the infallible line of the terrain and beyond, where the eye can reach a summit reminds us that winter snow is imminent and all of Belém will be sunk on the night of a polar wind.
How will they, how have they, survived in these mud huts on this wasteland which is frozen even in summer?
Near the village, silent, rusty, railway lines connect Oruro with La Paz. I never found out if it still operates. If it does, it could also serve as a perfect metaphor for the passage of time, or its negation: The negation of the passing of time which is the Conception of Bethlehem.
The village is halfway between the two cities, in other words between civilization and development. It would sufficient to follow the lines on one side or the other, and Bethlehem would be just a memory of clay in the past, a moment of misery on the road, easy to be forgotten.
But staying in the centre, in the village, is to confirm that time is just an invention and a possibility, it doesn’t apply equally to all and it isn’t always measured in hours, minutes or weeks, but also by the length of the seasons and crops, the rains and the drought, and the days and nights are counted by the passage of the sun,and the appearance of the moon.
At the entrance of the village, on the right, on a small hill of red stones, between some incredibly green cacti, a girl is playing a flute. She plays a sad tune, perhaps very old, breaking the deep silence of the plateau and silencing periodic wailings, the sheer howling of the dust in the wind.
As she plays, down below on some dry grassland, are grazing 10 to 12 llamas, alpacas or maybe vicunas. I still don’t know how to identify them very well.
They are llamas – an old man tells me, who has come up behind me without me sensing him, like a shadow.
– Look at the neck. They are llamas –he says again-. And the teeth …
A worn leather hat covering half his face, and the other half, worn by the sun, the cold and the years, like a wrinkled cloth, a rag.
He says his name is Tomás Quispe and he is a carpenter because his father was a carpenter because his grandfather and his other ancestors were. But now he works with mud.
There is no timber business here. And he points to the houses. They were built with these hands.
They are so big and hard, calloused, that they seem more like blades than hands. Proud, hunchback, chewing inevitably a black handful of coca leaves, he points to his great masterpiece: A row of adobe blocks cracking half from the sun’s rays of the daytime, half from the cold of the night.
That’s how long it takes, at most, baked clay in the sun of the Altiplano, but Tomás Quispe says that sometimes one afternoon is enough.
He says it depends on the day and the mud, because the clouds here do not matter: In the Altiplano cloudiness is a rarity and the sky, by day, always has a deep, unique hue, as if at the end of the distant mountains it absorbed the shades of the sea.
I imagine that at night the show must be inversely similar, that the Altiplano also offers deeply starred shadows, a bright colander of lights and darknesses.
I asked Tomás Quispe about this, how the nights of the Altiplano are, but he doesn’t respond. Obviously he doesn’t answer stupid questions.
He touches his bricks, he checks them on the sides and says that when they are hardened, the walls of a house can be built in one day, on another day the mud is allowed to dry between the blocks, and it takes another day to put straw on the roof.
And the next morning, Conception of Bethlehem has a new home, another pen or a wood or coal stove, all for the price of nothing, in another words no money: The price of sweat and human ingenuity.
– Want me to tell you something? –Tomás Quispe asks.
‘Sure,’ I reply. But you a horn is sounding continuously a few yards away, toward the entrance, down the road.
They are in such a hurry it seems they are expecting a party on the other side, in the best club in town.
I improvise a farewell that is barely a goodbye. Tomás Quispe doesn’t respond. I’m the last to climb on. When I see him, now through a window, he is already bent over his endless rows of adobe blocks.
Seeing him like this, so close to the ground, living off the mud, between walls and shadows of mud, no one would doubt that this material is also part of the essence of man, that somehow we are, or are made of a handful of wet mud. (PL)
(Translated by: Sophie Maling –Email: email@example.com)