Adventures in Bolivia, Chapter 4

Red Flags and White Flags

The Peak of Sorata and Tiquiripaga, Part 1

The day after Christmas we left Sorata, I on my sturdy saddle mule, two Indians of the Aymara breed, with three other mules I hired for carrying the provisions and baggage, and my man Miguel, who walked.

The Peak of Sorata. Illustration from Adventures in Bolivia.

The day was fine, with a lovely blue sky, and as we marched up the long steep Ylliapo Mountain we could see the magnificent Peak of Sorata in the distance. Before we started, Mrs. Gunther had said to me: “I shall expect to see you back to-morrow night; for when you see the awful climb ahead, and find that the mules will not be able to continue the journey, I am convinced you will have to turn back.” The path was fairly good, but only wide enough for us to go in Indian file; the cargo animals walked in front and the two Indians and myself brought up the rear. We were now passing through a forest of small trees and bushes, profusely covered with bright flowers indigenous to the temperate zone, such as roses, daisies, buttercups and fuchsias. The luxuriant bushes and geraniums and fuchsias were especially fine. Every now and then we met Aymaras with troops of llamas coming down the slope, each with their load of 50lbs. When we passed, the Indians always stopped their llamas and cornered them in any available space to allow us to go by, and they one and all bid us a very civil good day. I have always been given to understand that when they greet one it is a sure sign that they are of a friendly disposition, but when they pass without paying any attention it is not a good sign, and means that you should proceed with care.

It is also common knowledge that when travellers pass through a native village and find all the doors shut, it means, “Go on, don’t stop here, we wish to have nothing to do with you,” and it is then prudent to go on further. This I have proved several times, as when I have pulled up at any of these huts, which often have some one inside although they are shut up, and asked them to sell me some barley for the animals or fowls, the reply has always been: “No, we have nothing,” in spite of the fowls I saw running about, and big stacks of barley straw piled up everywhere.

I have often heard and read of prospectors passing these habitations, who have received that reply, and nevertheless proceed to knock over a few fowls and help themselves to the amount of barley straw they need, leaving payment at the usual current rate on the doorstep; but this, in my opinion, is not at all a good plan. Some travellers have been known not to leave any payment at all, and that has occasionally led to trouble. If a village is found with no inhabitants to be seen, but with some of the doors open, it means: “We are willing to sell you what you want, if we have it, but prefer you to camp outside our village.” When doors are open, and a few men and women are about, it signifies: “We are ready to sell you what you want, and you are cordially welcome to stop in the village as long as you like.” Then the usual thing is to ask for an empty hut, which is willingly offered, generally one of the best they have got, for one shilling a day, and you get another corral and shelter for your mules and men for another shilling. I have nearly always been fortunate in finding the latter, and have sometimes stayed like this for months on end in a village while prospecting and examining old mines close by.

After marching for about three hours, we had occasional hailstorms, but they did not last for more than half an hour or so, and it was quickly fine again. These hailstorms marked the beginning of the rains in the forests and snow and hail in the mountains on this side. Up to about 11,000ft. we passed a few stray huts made of stone. Sometimes I saw a red flag flying on a long pole beside a hut, which means that chicha, a refreshing drink made from corn, is to be had there. At another would be a white flag, which is meant to show travellers that fresh meat could be bought there. After 12,000ft. to 13,000ft. it got very cold, and no other hut was to be seen except one or two isolated huts belonging to Indian shepherds tending sheep or llamas.

At 5 p.m. we reached a height of 15,000ft. (by my aneroid). The sun had disappeared behind the mountain, and it was getting dark, so we decided to stop. I gave the Aymara shepherds a drink of rum each, and they hired a stone hut for my use, another smaller one for the men and the cooking, and a corral for the mules, for 2/-, the usual price for accommodation in these parts. I exchanged some coca and matches for some eschalots, potatoes and eggs; I make it a rule never to trade strong drink with the natives anywhere, and it would be a good thing if all South America would do the same as Guiana does, that is, prohibit the sale of rum to the Indians.

The mules had carried their own fodder for the day’s journey, as we knew that none was to be had on the way. There was plenty of long, coarse grass a little way down the mountain, and the careful Indians took them there to feed for two hours as soon as they got the gear off, while Miguel and I prepared the supper. The thermometer registered 6 below zero inside the hut, at 8 p.m., but that was soon altered when I had a lot of embers brought in and the door well closed.

Next morning, after a cold bath and a good breakfast, I started off at 9.30 a.m.


One thought on “Red Flags and White Flags

  1. Prodgers’ attitudes towards the indigenous Bolivians are very much of his time, as we can see from his paternalistic comments about prohibiting alcohol, or that he thinks nothing of staying in a village for months while prospecting for what is surely their gold. But a basic decency shines through in his comments on paying for goods while travelling.

    Once again, his spellings of place-names are archaic or peculiar. Mount Ylliapo is now known as Illampu, and the Peak of Sorata as Janq’u Uma or Ancohuma.

    His temperatures, of course, will be in degrees Fahrenheit, where 6 below zero translates to -21°C. And this in the middle of a Southern hemisphere summer, just after Christmas.

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