High above the capital city of La Paz, Bolivia, as the Spanish translation of the name would indicate, lies the positively sprawling neighborhood of El Alto.
El Alto, generally speaking, is a very poor district, located at the top of one of the world’s marvels of engineering -- the Teleférico -- a visually arresting and impressive cable car system traversing nearly the entire width of La Paz.
Luciana and I had a mission centered around a particular location within El Alto: to visit the Yatiris - the mystics way up in the cerulean blue skies – a place where tourists seldom go. This is partially because very few people outside of Bolivia even know the Yatiris exist.
One fine day, about two weeks ago, I slung my bright yellow North Face backpack around my shoulder and we exited one of the most charming hotels in all of La Paz. It took thirty minutes by minibus (around 2 Bolivianos or .30 cents in US currency) to get to the Sopocachi station of the Teleférico cable car line. We proceeded to launch into the sky overseeing nearly all of the city, enthralled by the birds-eye view of people doing their laundry in the backyard illuminated by the high-altitude sun gleaming off endless, corrugated tin roofs, and the tightly packed housing on 70 degree inclines. Many of the metal roofs were weighted with large piles of rocks in places where leaks must have occurred during the heavy rains. Privacy was a nonexistent commodity. The open, often windowless, structures were cinéma vérité for peeping Toms on a death-defying commute.
We took video of the breezy aerial flight, which would make any weak stomach protest against the pendulous swaying of the 8-person glass cabins. The people employed to show patrons onto the cars made sure to distribute the weight of the passengers evenly to mitigate intestinal and/or vertigo issues.
As Luciana and I approached the highest and final station in El Alto, a stranger seated next to us, presumably a local of the neighborhood, eyed my canary colored backpack and struck up a conversation with L. in Spanish.
He said, “I wouldn’t bring that backpack up here if I were you.”
“Oh...there’s nothing in it but bottled water, “ L. assured him, grateful for the advice.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said flatly. “You look like you don’t belong here. I’d take it back home.”
I groaned as I realized he was being helpful, not overly cautious. We’d spent an hour getting here, cramped in a tiny, uncomfortable minibus for part of it.
L. and I deliberated at the top of La Paz, Bolivia. It was one hell of a view. We decided to go back to the hotel and get rid of everything. That meant the phones, the passports, and the (mostly) empty yellow North Face backpack. I even traded my plaid shirt with button pockets for a plain, blue sweatshirt with no pockets.
In short, I made myself look like I had not one dime, or anything else, on me. However, I tucked 50 Bolivianos in my right sock (about 7 US Dollars) and a few coins in my jeans pocket. Overkill? Maybe. But I’ll tell you one thing: it was empowering and relaxing at the same time. It’s hard to feel fear when you have nothing on you to take. Midnight in El Alto is a very different story regardless of what you are carrying, but we had no need to be there that long.
We redid the whole transit. This time, because of a huge parade, it took almost two hours to get back to El Alto. It was a bit grueling.
At the very top, we flagged down a bus labeled “Ceja” that was headed in the direction of one of the main markets.
As we threaded our way through the bustling market of meat, many varieties of corn, trinkets, blankets, etc, let me tell you, we got some looks.
I’d noticed on the bus ride to the market that there were no tourists anywhere. Zero.
Here at the market in Ceja, there was even less of a chance of seeing our traveling brethren, judging by the looks we got from locals, some in warning, some stern, some downright mean.
At the end of the markets containing numerous stalls filled with bric-a-brac and multicolored pennants, Tibetan-style, flapping in the wind, were a few of the “brujas” (witches) with desiccated llama fetuses and other spell forming ingredients that were unpleasant to look at. Construction workers, when building a new home, often put a llama fetus under each of the cornerstones to protect the workers from injury.
Past these few stalls of “brujas” were the REAL witches...the Yatiris.
The dusty, rocky road at the end of the markets ran perpendicular and had the horizon for a vanishing point.
There were hundreds of stalls on either side of the forlorn road where one expected at any moment for tumbleweeds to roll across while the wind whistled a hearty three-tone warning. It was the wild west come to life.
L. and I walked far down the street, on the shady side, entreating ourselves to a whole new host of looks, some of them bordering on admiration.
“Well, looky what the gringos found!” the mystics seemed to say as they squinted at us.
I saw the Bolivian version of an NFL linebacker in a red and black checkered lumberjack’s shirt. He wore a brown chullo (hat) like I had back in my apartment in Cusco. As he turned to face us, I was startled by the David Lynch blue eyes that looked just to the left of us, but not at us. He didn’t seem to notice us. But we would have to have been blind not to notice that man’s eyes -- a sort of odd counterpoint to his hulking 250 pounds and shoulders you could skateboard across. This guy could lift an old Buick off of the ground.
We decided to approach him and L. asked him if he was available.
He said yes and motioned for us to come into his enclosed booth. I said absolutely nothing, my face poker-like. I wasn’t sure why, but I went into a mode where I tried to reveal nothing. Perhaps I wanted to know with certainty if he was, in fact, a gifted seer.
Once we were inside the booth, which was about 5 square feet in area, Luciana waved goodbye, and the seer said something in Spanish I couldn’t understand.
L. translated, “He says I have to stay because you can’t speak Spanish and he can’t speak English.”
“Ah,” I acknowledged. I guess that was easy to figure out without being psychic. But, still, was it impossible that I knew Spanish?
The linebacker of a Yatiri sat down to business at a crude wooden table with a slant to it. Palo Santo burned in a metal dish near the door. There were pictures of what I imagined to be family members and saints around his cloistered wooden shack. The makeshift edifice looked like it would blow over in a strong gust of wind. Nonetheless, it was somehow comforting as was the presence of the iridescent blue eyed man with deep crow’s feet at the edges.
He was very amused about something. Possibly because very few tourists came up here. They might have come if they knew about the mystics here, but they didn’t. I’ve talked to numerous people in Peru who have sat many times with the Q'ero high in the Andes mountains and even THEY had never heard of the Yatiris.
The seer proceeded to read my fortune with coca leaves. He had a large bag of them beside his arm. He positioned the "primary" coca leaves out in a pattern that resembled how most psychics read the Tarot. Then I would ask him questions about my life path and he would giggle slightly as he threw the leaves over the primary leaves at the direction of “the force” or instinct or I’m not exactly sure what.
I can’t divulge what the man said in the reading, but the man was a psychic. Of this, I was fairly sure. Not a “psychic” with quotes, but someone who can really see things that others cannot. Someone so gifted that I didn’t realize it until days later. The reason being that it was almost like a relative was giving you advice. It wouldn’t be strange for a relative to talk about your past and your personality characteristics so intimately because they’ve known you from birth.
But this guy did the same type of thing a relative would do. Except he didn’t know me. I barely spoke, in fact.
I left his little wooden shack feeling exhilarated and a bit shaken.
He charged me $1.50 US or ten Bolivianos. This was about thirty to fifty times less than he could have charged me and he knew it. I’m not sure why he gave me such a good deal. After all, an opportunity like that didn't come around very often for him. The kind of opportunity where someone would pay forty bucks without blinking. That is really a lot of money in El Alto. It might have been two months' rent.
But I will tell you this:
If you ever go to Bolivia, and you’re not afraid of hearing the truth about your future -- (and maybe you should be because they will give it to you) -- this is an expedition you will remember for the rest of your life.