I believe it to be true, that where there is wine, there is love, as Don Jesus loves to say. I also believe that where there is a lot of wine, there tend to be people playing music, laughter, shared meals and just a bit of debauchery. Ok, maybe a lot of debauchery. I´ve spent the last 2 1/2 weeks living on a bodega (vineyard) in a small village in Southern Bolivia, Valle de la Concepcion. I became acquainted with Valle de Vino, the bodega, though Wwoof.org, an orgination that connects farms with volunteers. Accommodations and some meals are exchanged for some hours of work. In this case, I worked a little, mostly painting, cleaning or sometimes cooking for everyone, but spent more time studying the local culture. And drinking lots of wine with the people. I was happy to share the experience with another volunteer, Anthony, originally from the UK, because we were able to view the madness from a slightly objective view and had some great laughs about it, while learning heaps about Bolivian wine-country culture.
Every person around the bodega was a character with a strong and interesting personality. Don Jesus, the owner of the bodega, is a big, smiley, generous man who has a reputation for enjoying his wine. As long as you stayed on his good side, there was no need to fret, but we saw the beast come out a time or two. Some mornings we´d wake up and he´d already be at it, entertaining guests or friends with one or several bottles of wine, and wouldn´t stop until after the sun had set, a couple times until it rose again. He treated me like family while I was there and I have nothing but positive regard for him, even if he hits the bottle a tad. He´s philosophical, honest and offers respect where it is returned.
My favorite character on the bodega must be Ramon, the painter. He´s crazy, as most artists are, and random, but insightful and sensitive. He will float slowly into a room and start talking about duendes (dwarfs) that live in the vineyard or about the fact that we are all going to die, or he´ll say things like your eyes are like crystal and he can see the universe in them. He eats earth (although I have seen him with food stuff, though never actually seen him eat) and swims in the abandoned pool half full of murky rain water and frogs- because in reality, it´s clean water, it´s of the earth. One day when I was making a trip into town, he picked two big roses, wrapped them in leaves and gave me specific instructions on who I was to bring them to: Rosalia, his love who lives above the chicken restaurant near the market. So I carried these roses into Tarija, somehow found the place, knocked on the door and delivered the roses. Ramon is romantic like this. He fancied kissing my feet, but it became too strange, so he settled for my hand. He wears lens-less glasses that he fashioned out of wire in the style of John Lennon. Ramon, the painter, the artist who throws his entire body and spirit into his work. He lives on the bodega and wanders through life, always a bottle of pure firewater in his pocket. He gave me a seashell when I left with no explanation of where it came from. I´ll keep it for as long as I can.
Other characters, more briefly- Tulo, a man living on the bodega while he finishes his house who casually mentioned he owns part of the most popular vineyard in town, is most likely a millionaire. He´s always a bit speedy and runs around doing very important things in very important clothes, he´s the dodgiest of them all, but friendly. Phily Phily, another man who works there, always has a cheek full of coca leaves and laughs like he´s up to no good. He shows up to work early, stays late and seems to be one of the only ones actually accomplishing anything. He´s impossible to understand but has a good heart. Another of my favorites, Angel, is a smiple man who doesn´t say much but obviously has a heart of gold. His belly is always poking out of his shirt, but in an endearing way. Then there are the girls, some of whom are absolutely lovely and others of whom just seem to show up and stand around all day. Then there were the animals- various cats and dogs, a few that lived there permanently and others that would come hang out during the day or night then leave. Animals are treated so differently in this world- the idea of buying them special food is absurd when they can just eat our scraps and hunt for their food. Pictured are the more permanent dwellers at Valle de Vino.
I can´t possibly describe them all in detail. The general vibe of the bodega is a bit confused, disorganized and lacking sense, but full of genuine intentions. My two weeks there were leading up to this last weekend, an opening day for the bodega after a series of renovations. The day consisted of lunch (sopa de mani, baked chicken with a picante sauce, potatoes and rice- very typical Bolivian), many glasses of wine and music that didn´t stop all day, even when the electricity went out (as it commonly did), we lit a candle and the guitars kept being strummed. The following day, there was half of a traditional folk festival (partly canceled because of rain), so 5 of us girls and Anthony dressed in traditional Chapaco clothes, danced around the plaza a bit, and then I ditched out to enjoy a lovely lunch at another bodega in town. I should mention that the wine at Valle de Vino is unlike any other I´ve ever tried. After seeing them bottle process one batch, it´s obvious that the proper wine making expertise is lacking completely, and it´s reflected in the wine. It´s funny that in 2 1/2 weeks living on a vineyard in wine country, I shared one bottle of proper, delicious wine at Bodega del Abuelo (Bolivia does make some beautiful wine, it just wan´t accessible from where I was working). And I can´t complain, I actually became accustomed to drinking glasses of sugary juice, and it was always flowing freely.
Bolivia is seen as the poorest country in South America, monetarily, but from what I saw in those two weeks, they live the richest lives. They roast whole pigs on weekends for no special reason. They gather with their friends and family and laugh. They play music and dance these flirtaous Bolivian dances, waving white hankercheifs at one another. They live simply and fairly self-sustainably- the bodgea was full of fruit trees in addition to the grapes, animals go stright from the field to the table and the cheese is so fresh that you can taste the same exact flavors in the milk.
Of course, nothing goes without fault, the way most people consume sugar is outrageous and even though diabetes goes undiagnosed, I´m sure it´s rampant, as is obesity. Life expectancy seems to be fairly short, just judging from what I saw. But do these things matter, really? If you live a full 60 years enjoying your life and then die, is it worse than constantly stressing over everything until you´re 95 and then being pumped full of medications to keep you alive?
Obviously, I can´t answer these questions because they´re very personal and subjective. But for me, seeing the way the Bolivians I´ve been surrounded with live has taught me a lot about how I want to live and also about how I don´t. I will take the spirit of the land of plenty, the graden of eden (as a friend put it), the care free, enjoy your days attitude, and leave the part that resembles the gates of hell (as the same friend so poignantly put it), the part that allows for debauchery and complete disorganization or loss of self.
I´m grateful for these weeks, wandering around Valle, safely, quietly, among people that became my Bolivian family and friends, drinking too much wine and losing various material things (also a lesson I´m being taught, to let go of things that refuse to hold onto us). Now that I´ve arrived in La Paz, it´s as if I´ve stepped out of a dream. I´ll tuck this time away into my memory, and be thrown into the next chapter.
Valle de VinoValle de Vino