We were greeted at the hotel which was to be our intermittent home over the next two weeks by our most accommodating host, Louis Demers. The hotel, an old property, is built round a series of courtyards with some flamboyant but overgrown gardens providing luxuriant colour right outside the rooms.
Sorata is a tourist centre and provides a range of dining opportunities which cater to the traveller’s palate. Everybody soon established their favourite locations, whether the expatriate’s Pete’s Place, or the more ethnic local restaurants.
Our first full day in Sorata was used to make a trip to the caves at San Pedro, a pleasant walk some two hours each way. The cave starts from an inauspicious crack opening into the rocks, but which rapidly expands to a huge cavern at the end of which is a lake. A few of the more intrepid of the party swam in the lake which was not frigidly cold as described in some guide books. A local legend about “older skinny dippers” has been launched!
In the evening we received the shipment of solar panels which we needed to support the lighting systems to be installed in the villages. Louis gave over his office to be a staging point at which we could assemble our supplies and get ready for the villages.
Whilst we waited for the lights which we had shipped from Canada to clear customs and to be brought to Sorata, we spent a couple of days on a short trek. Guides with mules were engaged to lead the way and carry the baggage up to Lake Chillata, where we planned to spend two nights. Our second day plan was to reach a glacial lake further up Mount Illampu.
The trek started with some confusion as one of our target villages, Quirambaya, was expecting a visit to show the completed kitchens that they had upgraded in return for having the lights installed. Fortunately Quirambaya was located not too far from where the trek started, but on the opposite side of the valley. So Faith and Anthony left the party temporarily and went with the Quirambaya delegation to inspect the kitchens.
This turned out to be a longer process than expected, since we had a formal welcome, singing by the children, music from the village band, and a feast! The protocol of the feast we gradually discovered was that one took something from every dish offered and then passed it on.
The kitchens we discovered were indeed much improved: we were proudly shown the adobe stoves and chimneys, which incorporated a working surface which allowed for food preparation off the floor and out of the reach of the numerous guinea pigs, a local delicacy, which had free range in the kitchens. The kitchens would become substantially smoke free and would also benefit from some additional illumination and ventilation from a mesh covered window.
We eventually made our departure and, accompanied by a young guide with whom we only had limited communication, made a very rapid 5,000 foot ascent to join the others as dusk fell at the campsite.
Unfortunately we had snow and rain overnight and the next day the cloud was down which prevented us from a making more than a further short ascent. We noticed the effects of the altitude at around 15,000 feet.
The day that had been lost from the trekking trip was spent in having the whole group visit Quirambaya in advance of undertaking the lighting installation. This allowed for another ceremonial feast, after which we walked back to Sorata.
In the evening we found that the lights had at last reached Sorata, just in time for our installation! This was the culmination of what had been a nerve-wracking process with much communication by phone, and calling on translation by anyone who could help!
We spent the next day in checking the lights, which gratifyingly had suffered no significant damage in transit, and in preparing the loads that needed to be taken to the village. The following morning we took trucks as far as we could and then we were met by villagers who carried the loads up to Quirambaya village.
After a demonstration installation all the party split up into groups and, aided by the villagers and some interpreters, the installation started. It had not been anticipated that the houses would be in two separated units. The kitchen was usually a short distance from the main house where the families slept. The installation had two lights per household supported by a single battery and this entailed considerable outside wiring and the use of much more wire than anticipated.
However, the installation proceeded apace and the solar panels were placed on the roof of the old school building which afforded a useful location as a battery charging place. We camped in the school yard and in the school building overnight and completed the installation by noon the next day.
The afternoon was given over to yet another formal feast, this time with beer! Faith led the way in blessing the installation by splashing beer all round the school room, and then we all followed suit. Then we had speeches which neither party understood too well in detail though the intent was clear enough: we were recognized not as country supporting country but as individual people helping other individual people, and our hosts were extremely gratified that their needs could be heard at such a distance.
We explained to the committee formed by the villagers that the lights belonged to the community and not to individuals and that they had to be looked after. We left an “operations manual” with our translator, Estanislau, who worked with the local NGO, CECASEM, who had overseen the kitchen improvements.
We continued with music while the whole community joined in a dance and the installation party took to their feet as well and gyrated with the best of them. It was a high moment of fellowship.