This is part 2 of a three part series. You can read Bolivian Diaries – Part 1 here.
I fall deeply asleep in the mining town of Oruro, which, at 14,350 feet, is one of the highest places we will visit. The town is relatively wealthy thanks to the copious amounts of silver, tin and lead extracted from the nearby mountain. The streets are newly paved and lined with parks festooned with magical playgrounds of dinosaur and giant turtle-inspired plays-capes. Sculptures made from discarded metals are a common decorative element and reminiscent of Burning Man art.
In the morning, before heading out, we get currency, water and petrol. After Oruro, these essentials will be hard to come by. We are headed deeper into the countryside. We visit the outdoor market that is bestowed with fresh fruit, household necessities and shamanist articles for healing and magic. Apparently there aren’t many doctors where we are going so remedies such as dried baby Llamas and molded wafers of sugar hold special significance in the rural areas.
We trundle into the car and drive for another several hours. The roads turn into dirt paths and there are many divergent and unmarked routes. I am happy to have our driver, Sr. Don German Mamani Rojas, at the wheel, navigating our path to a faraway place.
Arriving in Challapta seems uneventful. The roads are dusty and uneven. The houses are adobe and often ramshackle with thatched roofs. The animals scrounge for food on the street, and the dusty wind blows in billowing gusts.
I am soon to be enlightened that Challapata is the center of the Quinoa world. Producers and Co-op representatives come from the far reaches of Bolivia just to trade Quinoa here! In fact, the market is set each week by dealers, mostly women in fine bowler hats with babies strapped to their backs in colorful textiles. They have a vested interest in the price of Quinoa because they work the fields each day.
We are lead to the main entrance of a rural and immaculate processing plant. This facility processes and stores Quinoa as a hub for a cooperative representing hundreds of small farmers (1,894 families) who would previously have been unable to process and export there precious native crop. The plant is clean and meets all the food safety guidelines and regulations. It is a smaller version of the plant in El Alto, here in the middle of rural Bolivia.
After the tour we go upstairs (breathing heavily) and the ceremony begins. The laptops are ceremoniously unpacked and laid out on the table where the Presidente of each producer cooperative is seated to represent his or her constituency. They are there to formally receive the laptops UNFI has donated so that their technicians can better record their food safety, organic practices and Fair Trade data. Prior to today they wrote everything down on paper in the fields and transferred it manually back in the office. These gifts of laptops will provide a means for more efficient and accurate record keeping.
Organic and Fair Trade status will now be easier to track and perhaps more producers will now be able to get certified. Every single president is deeply grateful and thanks me with a special Bolivian arm embrace after receiving a laptop. I am honored to be the representative of a company that thinks so far outside the box and is willing to give in such meaningful ways.
We go outside for a group picture before heading out to our first “residence” experience for the evening. It is shocking in many ways but is the only place for visitors to bed down in Challapata. Tomorrow we drive even deeper into the wild countryside and meet the small family farmers who work with mother earth (Pachamama) to bring this Andean super food to the world. Going deeper means even less modern luxuries, and I fall asleep with hope and a little trepidation. The little village of Challapata celebrates the harvest as I slumber.