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Out into the deep Altiplano

Go to Achacachi, scare a few Dutch doctors with tales of cannibalism and then turn left – not towards Lake Titikaka but maybe a little more north and out onto a decidedly dodgy road. Chuma – 313km. The road goes on and on, up and down, side to side. Take a sharp right and descend towards a village a little like Sapahaqui – well it would, wouldn’t it? It’s all the same valley landscape off the Altiplano.

Sococomi on a Sunday afternoon and we are welcomed by 7 children. 7 children for 8 doctors come all the way from Holland? The “carousel” is set up and I’m put in the pharmacy – woohoo, always wanted to be a chemist measuring out pills.... the hope is that we’ll see 40 children – we saw 180 in 4 hours.

So the carousel goes something like this:

ü  Register child

ü  Weigh and measure child

ü  Take blood, put on a plaster

ü  Check child for lice, caries, scabies, worms and anything else visible, listen to heart and lungs

ü  Go to pharmacy, decipher doctor’s atrocious writing, give out tablets

ü  Model teeth brushing and give out toothbrushes


So what do you see in children in Sococoni between 0 and 12 years who live on a diet of corn and beans?

75% anaemia (the highest ever registered from previous missions to Northern India, Kenya, Nepal, etc.), scabies, fungal infections, seriously rotten teeth (no money to go to the doctor but all arrive clutching bags of sweets), worms, dog bit my face, he fell on his head when he was 4, 60% stunted growth. 1 Down syndrome child (a punishment from god).

Everyone is dewormed, given multivitamins, creams, iron for breastfeeding mums (Nestlé never got these women in their clutches).

Funny how the children of the youngest mums are the cleanest – maybe because they still have just 1 or 2 whereas the average is 6. Only 4 fathers to be seen.

The carousel closes at 6.30pm leaving 8 children outside – they’d walked for miles and arrived late. As a mark of gratitude the community has prepared dinner – the best of the harvest – potatoes, fava beans, corn, cheese, corn, fava beans, cheese, potatoes, fava beans, corn, potatoes, cheese....

Into the cars and off again – 5 hours later we arrive in Chuma after a breath-taking drive (and that’s in the dark).

It’s Day 2. No buses on the square, in fact nothing, no one on the square, the silence is overwhelming. I’m put with a doctor to interpret the health checks. We walk up the hill to the health centre, stunning scenery like Coroico or Chulumani on our side, the red, iron-crossed hills of the south of La Paz on the opposite side. Set up shop and wait for the children. Of course it’s Monday and they’re all in school. They start rolling in from the surrounding communities.  Some have walked since 3am to get to us. A 10-year old has walked for 3 hours on his own to find out he’s very healthy, here take a pill to make sure you don’t get worms and run off home like a good boy. After lunch the school children arrive. ALL and I mean ALL have rotten teeth – what’s going on? Yep, they chew on wisla the sweet part of the corn stalk. I start handing out the worm tablets and the children gulp down water – How much water do you drink a day? A cup. I’d been wondering why they were all complaining of headaches. Grab a teacher, demand that a campaign be started – but the teachers only drink 2 cups a day.... Water, water everywhere and not a drop being drunk (or washed in)!

A question. Can anyone see the sense in giving kids toothbrushes and no toothpaste?

The mayor was run out of town in October for being corrupt so apparently there’s no healthcare – sounds dodgy to me. We run out of worm tablets so have to buy more, there’s none to be had for free because there’s no mayor?    £0.15 each one.

240 kids checked – this is a resounding success – 150 is a success.

Day 3. Can we pick up 10 children who missed out yesterday and take them to Titicachi? 10 kids – can’t these people count? There were at least 30 waiting by the roadside – plus mums and a few fathers.... So we play the age-old Bolivian party favourite – sardines. Titicachi is between the Aymara community of Chuma and the Quechua community of Mollo. The Mollo women’s dress is beautiful, full of buttons and puffy sleeves. A wide-brimmed cream hat – flowers in the band means she’s available.  These are the descendents of the Incas, cursed for having to live side-by-side with the inscrutable original inhabitants of the region – the Aymara. Padre Max, a German priest who’s lived in Titicachi for 30 years (“a lot longer than I expected”) has worked hard to eradicate alcohol abuse, the school and health centre are up and running, clean, military precision – very German.

150 children later – 1 cleft palate, 1 Down ’s syndrome, 1 horrifically scalded, now gangrenous ear and toe, 1 malaria, 1 neurofibromatosis and the usual worms. Everyone has 2 toothbrushes, one at school and one at home and even though this too is a corn-growing area no one sucks on wira.

A fight breaks out when people hear we’ll only see 150 children.

Potato, beans, corn, beans, corn, potato. And the corn finally takes its toll at 4am. Luckily we were sleeping in the health centre and had an en-suite bathroom...

Day 4. And we’re off to Mollo, land of Incas, seriously malnourished children and mist (yes, the mist is probably malnourished too). This could be the Isla del Sol. I drafted in students from the last year of school to translate into Quechua for us. Same old, same old, snotty noses, anaemia, worms and when we pack up, a girl with raging phlebitis. The older girls play football outside the school (they kick like men say our drivers).

No staying in Mollo – probably a good idea, it’s really miserable here – the only colour amongst the mist is the puffy sleeves.

Day 5. Ayata. This is the end of the road and after setting up there’s a ceremony for the doctors on the main/only square. We snicker knowing what they’re in for and the Bolivians stay behind. 2 hours later they return – national anthem, flag ceremony, words from everyone, parading children, etc. And the kids have been standing outside waiting for us for 4 hours now. 

First child thru’ the door – severely mentally handicapped 2 ½ year old, dehydrated, 6 hours of life left. This can only get better.... 2 doctors down, Alix suddenly finds herself masquerading as a doctor.

1 Jeremy Button reversed a 12 year old, about 2 foot high who looks like a wizened old man, 1 club foot, broken ribs, 1 sex abuse, most with lice, most with scabies, most with hideous teeth. No lunch, no break, angry people because teachers’ children have health insurance and their kids are at the front of the queue – survival of the fittest. 4pm (doesn’t time fly when you’re itching all over). Alix is now made into a nurse. Infected scalp from scabies, infection too close to the ear for comfort. I ask the translator if I can cut all of the hair off but the mum says no as people will look at the girl funny in the street. Swab, swab, snip, snip, sick, sick. Mums come in and ask what’s going on and then proceed to shout at the mother – she doesn’t really care though. Poor, poor little girl. A real doctor comes in and says good job, now tell the mother what medicines she needs to take home.

6 worm tablets, 2 a day

Multivitamins, 1 a day

Antibiotics, 5mg 3 times a day

Other antibiotics prepared in a syringe hang on a minute, this mother will never, never administer all that. Talk to the nurse, the mother has to come every day (90 min. Walk each way) to get the hard stuff.

The dehydrated child is put on an ambulance to La Paz – she won’t see her 3rd birthday.

Pack up and off for dinner – wahey!  It’s corn again – I opt for beer.

The next morning we leave Ayata to try to get to Iskanwaya, pre-inca ruins, 3 hours away. It takes 5 and we’re in mist. We hit a muddy patch and the car slides. I mused what I had done in a former life to deserve this – my friend Jill’s being an extra on the new Butch Cassidy and the SDK film and she gets to wear flouncy dresses – I get to slide over precipices in mud and cut scabby hair..... We can’t see the gorge below but I know the ruins are somewhere down there and after 15 years of longing I WILL get to see them. We set off walking down into the fog and suddenly the mist clears – if we go down it’ll be at least another 3 hours and the Dutch are ON A SCHEDULE so we turn back – but how wonderful it looks.  Back in Aucapata we are informed that we couldn’t get there because there was a lot of bad feeling in the group... Better luck next year. I will descab, rehydrate and have small children cough all over me again to get to Iskanwaya.

The road towards the Peruvian border is misty and tempers are fraying. We get to Escoma at 8pm for some fresh trout and find out that El Alto is blocked, don’t tell the Dutch, they’ll freak. So on we go, through cocaine trafficking villages, the Bolivians tell stories of carjacks and ghosts on the road.

We get to the outskirts of El Alto and sure enough we can’t get in. After a lot of negotiations and calming down people who are twice my height we get through – after donating all our remaining coca-cola and coca to the cause.

2.30am on Saturday morning and I find myself in my shower scrubbing myself for dear life.

I’ll go again next year – with a lot of food in my backpack and more wet wipes.


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