As evidenced by the Tortilla De Papas, illustrated in Lex’s previous post, we spent the last week plus with our friends Jorge and Iratxe, wandering the Unesco World Heritage city of Sucre and the surrounding Departamento of Chuquisaca. We will be in Sucre for another two weeks and will post images of the city in the days to come. This evening, we’ll take you on a tour of Villa Serrano, a small “ciudad” of around 2,000 people about 200 km from Sucre in the direction of Santa Cruz and the more tropical lower-elevation regions to the east.
After meeting up and spending time in Sucre, the four of us set our minds to discovering a lesser-visited locale. While thumbing through the regional tourism brochure, we found our answer: Villa Serrano, home to the world’s largest churango. Luckily, Villa Serrano is also a place full of street-front workshops, allowing for the possibility that I might purchase an instrument directly from its maker. Plus, about 30 km north of Villa Serrano, there’s a forest reserve with an amazing waterfall that is reachable within a day’s trip.
Our original intent was to take a morning bus from Sucre to Villa Serrano. This hope was dashed on account of the many roadblocks by striking labor unions scheduled to take place around the city and throughout Bolivia. Earlier in the week, teachers, health care workers, and one or two other sectors had walked out of their jobs over a wage dispute. Here in Bolivia, it is not enough to initiate a work stoppage. People take to the streets in protest and do what they can to disrupt travel and commerce. The day of our departure, the city center was blocked to automobiles but open to pedestrians to wander through. As it turned out, the highway leading out of town was open and our afternoon bus left without incident.
In Bolivia, you should never believe what anybody says with regard to travel time. A promised four-hour trip to Villa Serrano on the bus turned into more than six long, bumpy hours over slim mountain passes—without a bathroom. Anticipating a later arrival, we had booked our accommodations at the Misky Life Hostal via phone the previous evening. Misky, in case you were wondering, is a regional freshwater fish that seasonally runs in abundance through the river alongside Villa Serrano.
The Misky Life offers private rooms with a bathroom for 70 bolivianos a night. At 7 bolivianos to the dollar, that’s $10 US. In Sucre, we had been spending roughly $15 a night. Currently, we are splurging at 190 bolivianos a night for an absolutely gorgeous place up in the hills above town.
Our first morning in Villa Serrano, we walked over to the municipal government office and met up with a pleasant guy who showed us the town’s museum. He also offered to arrange transit for the next day’s adventure into the forest, as well as a few connections around town for my churango quest. With the teacher’s strike on, we commissioned a ride in the Toyota pick-up truck of a local school instructor who would accompany us on our hike. Lex and I are generally against the idea of having a guide for something you can do yourself but in this instance, we never would have found our way without him.
The following day, we were also accompanied by an odd Argentine girl who had washed up in town some two weeks back and seemed to spend most of her time wandering Villa Serrano, drawing the attention of various would-be suitors, including our guide, the guy from the government office, and a few others.
The only other foreigner in all of Villa Serrano was an even stranger baby-faced looking guy from Germany whose motorcycle had broken down three hours out of town. So that was it , just the six of us there. I am quite sure the whole town knew who we were within moments of our arrival.
As we headed from primary to secondary and ultimately impassable tertiary roads, we got an up-close view of the poverty that exists in the countryside. Our driver took pleasure in noting that he has hot water whenever he wants it, perpetual electricity, and so on, while the people out in the hills live with nothing but the crops they grow and the water they can carry up from the river. It is a hard life and unlike the sense of personal liberty we saw in the remote forests of Patagonia, many of the people we saw out in the hills looked beaten down and stuck—particularly those who worked in small plots owned by others, laboring for wages that I can only imagine are amongst the lowest in the world.
It is a strange thing, be it in Brooklyn or in Bolivia, that a man can find peace with his lot, not through personal contentment but, rather, in the knowledge that he has more than the guy down the street. Our driver sure was proud of his Toyota and seemed to enjoy bargaining with and exuding power over the dirt-poor campesinos hitchhiking along the road. The five of us, his wealthy foreign clients, were squeezed in the cabin while the farmhands and other locals rode in the open back of the truck.
The hike itself sure put the sweat on Lex and me, and in keeping with tradition, we labored behind our more able-bodied trail companions. Curiously, as we approached the waterfalls, we were joined by two young boys who lived nearby. At day’s end, they informed us they were sent to collect a sort of tariff imposed by their father on any passers-by. Once again, our driver did the bargaining, this time on our behalf.
That evening, we returned to town quite exhausted , but not so tired as to break our appointment with a local churango maker. I had visited a few small workshops the night before and left them all under enthused. They didn’t display high levels of craftsmanship and seemed to be selling items more for the tourist markets back in Sucre. Despite Villa Serrano’s effort to bill itself as the churango capital of Bolivia, I was beginning to wonder if I had picked the wrong little town for my search.
We had but one hope left: Delin Sandagorgo, a man respected by all though liked by few. Some told us Delin was a drunk, never home, and that there was no point in trying to track him down. Others warned us of his temper and claimed he didn’t deal in an honest fashion. Amidst the weary admonitions, however, I sensed a fair bit of envy in the voices of Villa Serrano’s various churango enthusiasts. Delin didn’t sell to the normal middlemen apparently; his churangos went to special dealers in La Paz and sometimes as far as Europe. Late at night over a few beers at the Misky Life, it became clear to the four of us that, for better or for worse, we had to find Delin.
With phone number in hand, Jorge dialed Delin’s residence and was told he was at home in his workshop and that we should stop by at our earliest convenience. Jorge and I immediately walked to the edge of town. As we approached Delin’s home, we felt nervous and unsure of ourselves. What are the words one might use to speak to Delin Sandagorgo, Churango Master of Villa Serrano?
Delin turned out to be not at all the person his rivals described but, rather, a proud and somewhat aloof man who respects his work and demands the same of his patrons. Churangos come in different sizes: alto, bajo, and mediano. The instruments he showed us that night, along with one his father and mentor created, were all beautiful. But he had only one that was actually for sale—a custom model he created specifically for the traditional Christmas dance in Villa Serrano. He suggested we stop by the next day to view a different medium-toned churango that was just about finished.
Clearly, we had found the true master of Serrano. Unfortunately his asking price was more than I could pay. I neither said yes or no to his initial offer, but merely looked and listened, all the while knowing I only had $500 bolivianos left in my pocket, with no bank or ATM in town. We were told it was standard practice to charge foreigners double the asking price and figured we might as well come back and try our luck the next day.
The morning of our departure, we returned to Delin’s home, this time with my 500 bolivianos, 250 borrowed from Jorge, and $5 US leftover from JFK airport two months back. Delin had finished the mediano and it was beautiful. In anticipation of our meeting, he had written out diagrams of different chord formations which he used to deliver an impromptu churango lesson. He was a stern instructor and, to be honest, I felt strangely flattered when he offered his praise. We chatted for a while, Jorge helping me along when my Spanish failed. Finally, we had to reveal our problem: We didn’t have his asking price.
Delin withdrew and declared our counter-offer unacceptable, reminding us that his instruments are played by the finest musicians in La Paz and as far away as Espana. He spoke passionately of the care and craftsmanship that goes into his work and turned to show us the door. Jorge and I exchanged glances, acknowledging the near-end of the churango search. I reached into my pocket and put all the money we had on Delin’s work table, then turned my head down and continued to strum the instrument he had completed the evening before.
Delin counted the money once, then twice again before putting it in his pocket and resuming our churango lesson. He never accepted our offer. He simply carried on with our conversation as though we had never discussed an asking price. At the end of our meeting we shook hands and Jorge and I walked back across town to the Misky Life, my new churango in hand.
Meanwhile, over the course of our time spent in Villa Serrano, the labor unrest in Bolivia had risen to feverish levels. Roadblocks had been constructed on all the arteries leading in and out of Sucre. In larger and more turbulent cities, acts of aggression between the police and protesters had occurred. The local bus company assured us all was well in Sucre and that there was a daytime-only roadblock a mere two blocks from the bus station. My friends, if you find yourself on the wrong side of a roadblock, let it be known that the bus company is not the proper entity to ask for accurate information.
Late that evening, about 8km from Sucre, our bus came to a halt at the back of a long line of cars and trucks. A sizable crowd of people were blocking the two-laned paved road into town. There were also piles of dug-up concrete, gathered stones, and large bonfires. Jorge and Iratxe, being from Europe where roadblocks are not an uncommon negotiating tactic, were not as freaked out by the whole thing as Lex and me. We had never seen anything like this before and not being fluent in Spanish, didn’t understand all of what was happening around us.
Several people on the bus grabbed their bags and headed down the street to pass through the roadblock on foot, where local buses and taxis were waiting on the other side to bring people to town. Jorge and Irtaxe decided to follow suit and Lex and I eventually grabbed our bags and followed along. As we approached the fires, we could see up to a hill above the road where a much larger crowd was present than was visible from our bus. We walked briskly, passing the protesters as they chanted through the night: “Aprende mi ejemplo! Aprende mi ejemplo!” (“Learn From My Example!”) Safely on the other side of the blockade, we grabbed a cab into town, Lex and I content with the knowledge that we would not have to leave town again for another two weeks.
It’s hard to say how long the unrest will last, but things are tranquil here in Sucre, late at night on Easter Sunday. The markets have plenty of food. We are in the most wonderful guest house above a beautiful colonial town, and hanging on our bedroom wall is my prized churango.
What an experience……this is a story you will remember all your life
along with your treasured churango!!!
love mom w.
Notwithstanding the eloquence of this post and all the new things I learned whilst reading with great anticipation, I nevertheless was somewhat disappointed to discover that a “churango” was not some exotic chocolate dessert that grows in the wilds of Bolivia. Bummer!
Great adventures. Keep up with the human nature stuff. The kids in the mountains who wanted to collect a “toll” are not unlike the kids in NYC who do the same, but for different reasons…
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