Platforms of Heaven
The Bolivian Plateau
At 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) above the sea,
a daunting and alien universe skirts the Andean Mountain ranges of southern Bolivia.

Death and Memory:
In the shadow of the Andes -
Highway 61 to San Fernando

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This narrow strip of highway cuts a seemingly endless straight line through the northern Chilean desert towards the village of San Pedro de Atacama and the bleak, isolated frontier of South Western Bolivia. For what seems like hundreds of kilometers there are no curves, no way stations, no communities or crossroads. No speed limits need be recognized and the road is rarely if ever patrolled by police.  The only traces of humanity here are the detritus of tragedy and the seemingly endless handcrafted monuments and shrines constructed roadside by loved-ones to memorialize the dead and mark where they died.

Whether exhausted, mesmerized, intoxicated, fool hardy or the victims of another’s folly, countless people have crashed or gone off the road to their deaths in this intensely stark and lonely land. There are the casual stories told by a cast-off shoe half buried in the crust of the dessert, a shredded strip of tire tread lying like a sloughed-off snake skin in a ditch, a dust-caked, weather beaten coat, folded and left weighted down by stones, all mute testaments to lives that have left no shadows. There are the makeshift, half desperate markers; a sun-bleached wooden cross, canted at a strange angle, decorated with plastic flowers and the deceased’s Ray Bans; an oil drum filled to overflowing with pieces of a wrecked automobile and garnished poignantly with personal possessions found inside; jerry rigged markers of piled stone or scavenged wood, often emblazoned with Christian and ancient Native Indian symbols, one beside the other, recounting stories of a people conquered by outsiders but still proud, after hundreds of years, of their indigenous heritage.

Most affecting, sad and beautiful are the carefully constructed shrines describing so eloquently the grief, memories and sense of loss and history that reside in these places of rupture and calamity somehow now made sacred by a family or loved one’s evidence of care and devotion.  Miniature handmade churches and chapels look out over vistas of wasteland, like tiny jewels of faith in an endless, featureless universe. Nearby, varieties of small shrines or almost full-size chapels have been built with varying degrees of skill and imagination. Some are covered by tarpaulins or corrugated plastic roofs, others surrounded by benches or chairs for passers by to rest on and contemplate the lost life of an unknown traveler, or just the fragility of one’s own moment here on earth and the brief spark of history we represent as we speed at unthinkable speeds along on our own metaphorical blacktop in the desert.



©Brian Damude / 2008