Don's Diary

November 16, 2001

Fresh snow caps Inti Illimani as the plane lands 4,000m above sea level at La Paz airport in El Alto, Bolivia. Relishing the fresh, oxygen-starved air, I walk across to the airport buildings, wheeling my hand luggage full of teaching materials for the course I am about to deliver on Andean art. Members of the Institute of Aymara Language and Culture (ILCA) greet me and I am taken through the congested streets of La Paz to their office in Munaypata. They introduce me to the latest member - Tom s Catari, or Tom Cat in English.

The first day of the course takes place in the splendid auditorium of the Tiwanaku Museum. I am surrounded by fantastic decor inspired by the monuments of that ancient Andean empire.

Denise Arnold of the ILCA warns me that my course has a political edge because I treat textiles produced by rural Aymara speakers with the same seriousness as gallery art that is produced by urban Spanish speakers.

After my lectures, we take the students to an exhibition, "3,000 years of textiles" at the Ethnographic Museum.

We spend the afternoon examining ethnographic and archaeological textiles, delving into issues concerning making and meaning, colour and symbolism.

It is census day in Bolivia and we all have to stay at home to await the census taker. I am included on the basis that I eat with the family. This gives me an opportunity to polish my lectures for the rest of the course.

It is the final day of the course. I spent last night reading the exam papers that I set for the students and their course evaluation comments. They have responded with commitment and enthusiasm. Today, we all eat saltenas (spicy chicken pasties), then pose for a photograph.

My hosts whisk me off to spend time in Sajama. On the way we note piles of stones and the remnants of car body parts that were used by the Aymara speakers to blockade roads into La Paz in September last year in a remarkable series of political protests that went largely unreported by the British press.

In Sajama I smell the aromatic shrubs of the sparsely vegetated steppe-like llama and alpaca herding lands. I am in my element here because it is in country such as this that I have been doing fieldwork since the 1980s among Aymara-speaking herders and weavers over the border in Chile.

Back in La Paz the word has spread. Students in the architecture faculty at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres ask their lecturer to invite me to give my lecture on the use of colour in Andean textiles. So I repeat it twice.

There are no Aymara speakers in the first session, but there are three in the second.

The students are fascinated by my contrast between western and Aymara colour theory.

Penny Dransart is senior lecturer and chair of the department of archaeology at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

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