In one of my first memories, I am nauseous at the back of a truck, which is precariously descending from the glaziers of La Paz to the tropics of the Yungas on the narrow, winding ‘road of death’ in Bolivia. My mother is holding a plastic bag under my chin and I am emptying the contents of my stomach into it, repeatedly, whilst other passengers throw us looks of pity. At the best of times I am a scrawny looking child with forlorn eyes, thin limbs and unusually pale complexion, so our fellow travellers look genuinely worried. I truly feel I am about to die, but more from embarrassment than from motion sickness.
We are making the trip to visit my father, who is a doctor doing his year of country practice in Irupana, a little town in the Yungas region known mainly for its coffee plantations. We board a bus in the early hours of the morning, while it is still dark and misty, but as we reach the cumbre, the highest and coldest point of the journey, the bus breaks down and we are shepherded into the back of a passing truck, our teeth chattering with cold and our breath condensing as it leaves our mouths.
At this time I don’t comprehend that I am travelling on one of the most dangerous roads in the world, a two-way dirt road that in some places is no wider than one lane, stretching for 90 kilometres, carved on the side of the mountains at over 4000 metres of altitude, with twists and turns so sharp it is often impossible to see any cars coming the opposite way. There are no barriers to stop vehicles from falling over the edge onto cliffs so deep and sheer that the passengers have no chance of surviving. As it is heavily used, up to 300 people lose their lives on this road every year and the way is peppered with crosses in memory of those who perished. In between bouts of nausea I count the crosses as they fly past, thinking that this surely is something that only happens to others.
A few years later, when I am perhaps seven and my brother is two, I come close to becoming one of those crosses when we find ourselves inside my father’s car, swaying on the edge of the cliff after he miscalculates the angle of a bend and two of the wheels end up off the road. If any of us moves as much as an inch, we will precipitate down to our deaths. So we sit tight, afraid to even breathe, avoiding looking at the precipice stretching below us, until other drivers stop their vehicles to come to our rescue, and pull the car back on to the road. As though staring at death in the face is something that happens to us every day, my father thanks them, gets back behind the wheel and we get on with our journey. Nobody speaks about what has just happened.
When I am in my thirties and living in Australia, a friend emails me a slideshow of the “most dangerous roads in the world” where the Bolivian death road features prominently. I show it to my mother, and she confesses that when I was aged two, I had travelled this road at high speed on my father’s motorcycle, squeezed between him and her and wearing no protective gear. Knowing my mother, who is the personification of cautiousness, it is hard to believe that she would have agreed to make that motorcycle trip not once, but several times with her infant daughter, but I have to take her word for it, as I was too young to remember.
When I am three, old enough to recall the endless bends, the precipices, the landscape morphing in front of our eyes from arid to lavish, and the beautiful ‘Bride’s Veil’ cascade, we make that treacherous trip several times; until my mother too finishes her medical degree and starts her own country practice in the same hospital as my father, and we move to Irupana for the duration.
It is the early seventies and Irupana, like many other regional towns in Bolivia, hasn’t yet caught up with the rest of the world. There is no electricity, no television, no telephone. My mother reads me books by the light of oil lamps and we listen to battery operated radios. The hospital is one of the few buildings that has electricity magically produced by a generator. We gorge on strawberries from our neighbour’s farm, and drink unpasteurized milk freshly squeezed from their cows, with a deliciously thick layer of cream. At night, we pluck oranges from the trees in our backyard and my father roasts them in a bonfire. My first movie is projected on a white sheet hung on the wall of an improvised theatre in town, where we sit on folding chairs scattered on the dirt. The movie is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio and I enjoy it immensely until Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale. This seems completely unfair and I cry, kick and scream as though it is the end of the world, and we have to abandon the screening to pacify the other movie goers; it is not often that they get to see moving pictures.
The edges of my first memories are soft and dreamlike and they start in this tiny, backward town where everything seems to take place in slow motion. Irupana is surrounded by rolling green hills, plantations and tropical valleys. At only a few hours’ distance from the barren, high-altitude, noisy La Paz city, this is a completely different world.
Some of the memories are not as soft though. I am stung by a bee and attacked by two different dogs – though one of the attacks, from our own dog (Jackie) is entirely my fault. As the two dog attacks happen under the watch of two different babysitters, my parents give up on the idea of having me looked after by nannies and decide to send me to school.
The nearest school is an all-boys school. Neither my gender nor my age (I’m just over three years old) deter the principal, and I am allowed to join the kindergarten class. Not only am I the only girl at the school, but I am the youngest by almost two years. I am also the palest, as most of the inhabitants of Irupana have the copper skin tone of the Amerindians. Although there are some European immigrants in this area, most of the population is indigenous. Even in the city, my skin is unusually white in comparison with most Bolivians as a result of having some French and English blood somewhere down the line. At kindy I am not teased or ignored because of my differences - quite the contrary, I am the centre of everyone’s attention, from the teachers to the kids, and I bask in it.
We present a theatrical version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the end of the year, and I am given the title role - it would have been quite ironic if I didn't’ get the part, being the only girl in the troupe; even the witch is played by a boy. My mother makes me a beautiful pink dress for the performance and newspapers are carefully laid on the dusty stage floor to avoid ruining my outfit when I fall to the ground, after taking a bite of the enchanted apple.
Despite the dog incidents, this is a magical year, but twelve months fly and return we must, to the big city at the other end of the road of death.
Images from: http://www.ssqq.com/archive/vinlin27b.htm
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,