Tinku, an ancient ritual in Bolivia, is one that no outsider has come to understand.
Courtesy Kate Wheeler
Tinku, an ancient ritual in Bolivia, is one that no outsider has come to understand.
Tinku, an ancient ritual in Bolivia, is one that no outsider has come to understand. (photo: Courtesy Kate Wheeler)
Kate Wheeler

The Fist of God

“Tinku is perfect, like the lightning. When it kills you, it kills you; when you have to die, you die. He who falls, let the earth be the one to complain.”

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Severo Guzman is strikingly handsome, well-dressed in a red jacket, white felt hat, and white wool pants. He says he thinks he is 60, but he can’t be over 45. I’m meeting him in an onion patch, escorted here by an intermediary, because it is the only way I can talk to him.

He is a campesino, a peasant. In this remote river valley, cut deep into the Bolivian altiplano, he works white people’s land. And every year he walks into their town—San Pedro de Buenavista—to pay off his patrones in sacks of corn and fresh-killed meat, to enjoy its Catholic feast day, and to beat other campesinos bloody.

Severo fights the ritual battle called tinku. It is full-force combat; sometimes people die. Although it takes place alongside Catholic celebrations, tinku is an ancient festival, one that no outsider has come to understand. For days, I’ve been trying to get someone—a fighter, someone who knows—to explain it. But the campesinos in the market, the indigenous Quechuas and Aymaras, stare right through me. Lots of them don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t know Quechua or Aymara. And on top of language is history, a history of conquest and mistrust. But now Saúl, a white man, has arranged this meeting with Severo, who works his family’s land. Saúl calls him “my peasant”; Severo calls Saúl tatay, Quechua for “my father.” But Severo says Saúl treats him fairly, unlike many patrones. And so he is honored to explain tinku to a gringa.

“I fight every year, sagrado, sacred,” he begins, with Saúl translating into Spanish. “I can never break my promise, for that which is sacred is sacred always. Tinku is perfect, like the lightning. When it kills you, it kills you; when you have to die, you die. There is no justice or law. He who lets himself fall, let the earth be the one to complain.”

“And it is pleasant always to be a little drunk, because when you’re sober it is not as much fun. It’s a euphoria, a gift of the festival to hit one another. I feel more of a man when I hit someone.”

“To prepare, some have ceremonies; they dedicate themselves to the mountains. In our house we always have something sacred where we make offerings. But there are mountains that are sacred and great, much greater than what we have in the house.”

Although it takes place alongside Catholic celebrations, tinku is an ancient festival, one that no outsider has come to understand.

“There has been tinku ever since I had a memory. From our great-great-grandfathers, it is always there. Before the Spanish there was always this. In our veins we carry the custom of fighting. No matter what, each year I want to do it. It sears me. I think, ‘It's not just others who can fight, I too can fight.’ My father, he beat hundreds, he was famous, renowned. My brothers, Lorenzo, Gregorio. My brother Eusebio, he cannot be beaten.”

“Tata San Pedro, Tata San Pedro,” he concludes, invoking the town’s patron saint. “May he guide us and keep us always together. We are his campesinos, brave enough to offer ourselves up.”

Severo promises to dedicate a fight to me. To honor him in return, I say I’ll dress in campesina’s clothes. As it happens, I never see him again, but my change of costume will propel me straight into the heart of the tinku.

There are worlds of marvel in Bolivia. Doors that open onto other ways of seeing, trails that lead across solitary landscapes and end in unexpected places, and inner and outer wildernesses where no trails yet exist. A couple of German filmmakers told me in a pizza joint in La Paz last year how they’d come off a salt flat into a village whose annual festival had just started, and they went wild for this drunken feast, its totem poles and stuffed condors.

With only nine million people in an area not much smaller than Alaska, travelers here enter the uncrowded space of an ancient population balance. More and more people have discovered this, and now La Paz sometimes seems overrun with loping, fleece-clad, sunglassed refugees from ourselves, all beating a path to the next untrampled adventure destination. But hours outside the capital, the gringo trail peters out, and vast, acute terrain takes over. You can scale 5,000-meter snowpeaks, trek around them, or machete through rainforests. You can cross the lands of the Kallawaya healers, the magicians of the Inca empire.

But it’s never safe to hike alone. Fatal accidents have occurred on the popular trekking route from La Paz to the resort of Coroico, where a Swiss blonde disappeared last April. Most of the countryside is peaceful, but there are places where tourists are not welcomed. Years ago my friend Peter had a fantasy that he and I would get some llamas and trek around the northern shores of Lake Titicaca. Our map showed a dirt road and the town of Achacachi. We imagined ourselves strolling between golden fields of quinoa and the thrilling blue waters of the highest lake. Living in Bolivia for part of each year, I asked about Achacachi. Don’t go there, people said; Achacacheños were mean and fuertes. A friend in La Paz happened to come from there, as I learned one night, drinking, when he suddenly commanded me to fear him: He was from Achacachi, he ate babies. It turned out to be a common rumor, this baby-eating. Eventually I asked a Bolivian anthropologist. He said there were a lot of strange things in the backcountry. He’d never seen baby-eating, but he was sure it had happened in secret, because, he explained, a myth that has never been disproved must contain some truth. Another visitor told of a black dog howling like a woman in the haunted plaza. I decided not to go.

I’ve been a festival dancer in La Paz, even president of one of its diabladas, its groups of masked devil dancers, but I was afraid tinku was one festival I shouldn’t attend. Tinku was brutal, forbidden, for campesinos only. In 1999, at Bolivia’s biggest tinku, in the town of Macha, a French photographer was seriously injured, beaten over the head with his own camera. The gesture was hard to misinterpret. Beyond endangering myself, I didn’t want my presence to make the fighters feel like animals in the tourists’ zoo. And yet the pull was deep. I grew up in South America, feeling a complicated mix of separation, identification, responsibility, and desire. At age ten, in Peru, I found a woman’s skull in a pre-Inca burial ground. I used to sit and stare into her eye sockets, wondering who she’d been.

(Courtesy Kate Wheeler)

And I’d wanted to see a tinku ever since a friend evoked a haunting, Kurosawa-like scene of campesinos converging across an arid altiplano amid the howling of giant panpipes and the fluttering of flags. The Quechua word tinku means “encounter”; weddings and fistfights happen at the same celebration. Somehow the conjunction made sense to me, as if a festival of life and death, excluding no type of human contact, might offer a glimpse of wholeness.

I decided to go, but quietly, responsibly. I dug up most of what's in books, on film—not much. I tracked down experts in La Paz. I learned that the southern Andes are dotted with violent festivals, where people fight with fists, whips, rocks, farm tools, on horseback, or sling dried apricots at one another. Bloodshed, even death, are overt objectives as extended Andean families, called ayllus, square off in slugfests that can last from a few minutes to nearly a week. Most such battles (and the deaths that occur in them) are undocumented, but the tinku tradition, based in the altiplano departamentos of Oruro and Potosí, is coming out of oblivion. A dozen or so are held annually, defying efforts to ban them; the Macha tinku makes the TV news. Two thousand campesinos fought there last year under the pacifying influence of police armed with bullwhips and tear gas. One death was reported—a man beaten so badly that he couldn’t be identified. At least one other man died without making the news. A stylized tinku dance was even in vogue among educated, roots-oriented young people, but before joining a real tinku most urban Bolivians would rather visit Miami, or maybe rot in hell.

Editorials echoed the words of Spanish observers 400 years ago—savage, subhuman. Resisting such portrayals, an Aymara pundit told me that soccer was more brutal—and didn’t norte-americanos have their boxing? Clearly tinku was being obscured by the very sensationalism that had brought it to light. I had to see for myself. La Paz friends urged me not to go. There was also a war going on for much of last year on the border of Potosí and Oruro, a feud between two of the ayllus that compete most ferociously at tinkus. The army had gone in. The news was full of burning hamlets, corpses, poked-out eyes. Fifty people had died, but it was hard to believe that all of tinku country—some 60,000 square miles—was aflame with danger. “Ay, Katy!” my Bolivian tocaya, or same-name friend, Katy Camacho, said. “Why don’t you go to Cochabamba instead? There’s a Christ there. He cries real tears!”

I know now that I was failing to imagine what real violence would be like.

It took two days to get to San Pedro by four-wheel drive. My friend Wolfgang Schür, a German photographer who’s lived in La Paz for 16 years and seen more tinkus than just about any nonfighter, thought there still might be a tinku there. Ten years ago he’d seen a thriving festival with mass campesino weddings and thrilling fights. Whether it still existed was anybody’s guess. And so one day in early winter Wolf and I and my anthropologist boyfriend, David Guss, along with Wolf's driver-sidekick, Don René Irahola, a retired mechanic whose stated age ranges from 72 to 90, loaded Wolf’s aging Nissan with 75 liters of extra gasoline and left La Paz to find out.

The first night we crossed a boiling river, its steam eerily brilliant in our headlights. Dead people’s clothes were washed here, a funeral custom. We chose not to stop. The next day we lurched out of the last depressed mining town, past mountains of slag dug into hideous goblin-warrens by palliris, workers who rinse tin ore from crushed rock for as little as one boliviano, about 15 cents, a day. We ate dust, climbing in and out of valleys where the earth swirled violet, rust, black, gray, white, green. In one hamlet, every person was stone-drunk. They stood swaying blankly as we passed, like victims of some enchantment.

I’d never come so far into the altiplano as to taste its bitterness. Windowless hovels hunched against the frigid wind. A raddled, barefoot family trampled frozen potatoes into the black and vaguely oily staple, chuño. Billboards blaring the names of politicians and foreign-aid projects only added to the sense of desolation. All you could see were mountains upon mountains, an ocean of ranges rippling. Ears roaring with altitude and light, I began to wonder about my notion that all distances could be covered.

We saw no signs of a war. Instead, on lonely curves, we’d pass a young man in a tall, conical knitted hat and a bright embroidered jacket, walking along playing a tiny guitar, a charango, to himself. No village in sight. Once he would have been a warrior for the Incas; now he was a subsistence farmer, with a life expectancy of 46. We drove all day, until San Pedro rose from the confluence—the tinku—of three rivers. We arrived just after dark to find its main plaza full of excited vendors preparing to sleep in places they’d staked out. The fountain’s silver-painted swan glinted in the moonlight; the air, at a mere 2,400 meters—less than 8,000 feet—felt edible compared to the altiplano’s, more than a kilometer above the town. Alas, Wolf’s friend, one of the two local priests, had other guests, but he steered us to a UNICEF dormitory at the far end of town.

The electricity went off for the night, leaving us to the music of charangos and to a crawling and nipping in my bed—which I hoped was fleas, not vinchuca beetles, carriers of fatal Chagas’ disease. I lay awake, listening to the shimmering music that would drift through all our tinku days and nights. I thought of the words of Marcelo Fernández, an Aymara writer in La Paz. He’d said tinku was the last ferocious expression of the ayllusan education in courage. The need for courage here seemed great.

At dawn, I went out alone. Beyond a stubbled field was the vast riverbed; then stark, pale, folded mountains. This end of town was filling up with trucks disgorging tinku-goers and livestock. People were driving loaded donkeys up from the river and cooking by the roadside. Passed-out drunks lay where they’d fallen.

Men wore bits of traditional clothing, knitted hats and tight, bright jackets mixed with T-shirts and jeans. Women were more conservative, in full skirts and beribboned white felt hats. Black skirts were altiplánico; printed or synthetic ones, valluno. Later I’d hear that Aymaras from the highlands would fight Quechuas from the river, but also that in the contest of tinku, the rules of engagement between ayllus were far too intricate to summarize. White people didn’t fight. Their outfits wouldn’t be out of place in Boston. To make things even more complex, nearly everyone in Bolivia has indigenous ancestry, so most “whites” are actually mestizoas are many indígenas. And of course all foreign tourists are “white,” in our uniforms of pants and sunglasses.

(Courtesy Kate Wheeler)

Trudging uphill, I fell in beside two campesinos carrying 200-liter earthen jars. “What are those?” I asked one of the men. I was pretty sure they were for chicha, Andean corn beer. “Chicken coops,” he sourly lied. I climbed past the clinic and a jail out of a spaghetti western. The jail was empty. I’d learn that its former jailer was now an inmate, convicted (to everyone's amazement) of beating another mestizo’s campesino to death but that he and the other two prisoners had been freed for the festival.

Past the market, where hundreds of liters of grain alcohol stood for sale in big pink cans, I came to the small plaza where the fights would take place. It was remarkably unremarkable, a rocky, tilted, piss-stained triangle rimmed by house fronts and raw adobe walls. I was standing there, depressed, when a man in his later forties with a reddish complexion and a neat mustache, dressed in khaki pants and shirt, came strolling up. Taking him for an official, I offered a tentative hello. He introduced himself as Saúl Villagómez. “Come with me!” he cried, and led me through a patio and upstairs to a room where eight men lay on straw mattresses.

They sat up and immediately produced a bucket of chicha, and we began toasting. Over my protests that I had a “husband” down the hill, Saúl introduced me as his love, called for a charango, and began improvising, singing lewdly of his golden “pingo,” and (since I had a husband) begging to be hired as my gardener. “Oh, let me labor in your garden,” he crooned, “to dig your earth will make me—Ah, the roses and the lilies!”

He was really good. The men clapped along; Saúl played behind his head, gazing into my eyes. All along, a fox-faced fellow sat sharpening a table knife to a deadly point. He slipped out to slaughter cattle for the upcoming feasts.

More guitars appeared; new men sang. I turned down a gourd of chicha, on grounds that it was not yet 8 a.m. “The fiesta knows no day or night!” Saúl insisted.

The Quechua word Tinku means “encounter”; weddings and fistfights happen at the same celebration. Somehow the conjunction made sense to me, as if a festival of life and death, excluding no type of human contact, might offer a glimpse of wholeness.

Most of San Pedro’s mestizo upper crust was assembled in that room. Their lands, nearby, were worked by campesino sharecroppers. Only two lived in town; the rest had emigrated to cities as children, after the uprising of 1958 when thousands of campesinos had besieged the town, vowing to drink blood from the skulls of its inhabitants. Saúl told me that his aunt, Erlinda, had foretold the rebellion. Asked how she knew, she said, “I sleep with the Devil, and he gives me money.” Her husband had scoffed until, Saúl said, “el diablo lo violó per detrás” (“the Devil fucked him in the ass”) one night. The uprising was put down, its leader’s severed head hung on the pacay tree in front of the church. Nonetheless it was fear ‹along with the lack of schools, roads, mail, telephones, electricity‹that led San Pedro's gentry to decide there was no future here.

Still, there is a past, and each year the town’s mestizo sons and daughters return for this festival, reoccupying crumbling ancestral homes. This year’s celebrations were sponsored by one of Saúl’s friends, Joél Murillo, patrón of the valley's biggest hacienda and son of the town’s great patriarch, Don Ángel Murillo. A quiet man of 35, Joél had ordered the making of 30,000 liters of chicha and brought in a brass band from Oruro; tomorrow he’d sponsor a mass animal sacrifice, the uywanakaku, and then cockfights, a bonfire, fireworks, masses, two saints’ processions—a weeklong party. (Campesinos had separate festivities, culminating in the tinku itself, which would begin in four days.) The extravaganza stood to cost Joél the equivalent of $5,000, more than a decade's average income around here. He planned to take advantage of the occasion to marry Prima, his pregnant wife (they’d had a civil ceremony years ago), in a church ceremony. The priests forbade campesino weddings in San Pedro, citing tinku-goers’ drunkenness among their reasons, but apparently pregnancy was no problem.

“This town,” Saúl whispered to me, “outwardly, it looks like pig’s urine. But inwardly, it’s our souls’ home. People travel days and days to get here.”

The Uywañakaku was deeply upsetting, not least to the heifer. She struggled against her fate, but they tied her by the horns to the 1930s amphibious vehicle—a relic of the Chaco War and of a not-so-far-off time when the only access to San Pedro was up the riverbed—that was rusting in front of Joél’s house.

Joél and Prima splashed the heifer with chicha, and then a beefy dude named Marco Antonio Casano pushed a knife into her spine. She took forever to die, kicking and gasping through her severed windpipe while her head was being sawed off. A man smeared blood on our cheeks, where it hardened into bright-red scabs. The cow was pregnant, so they took out the pink fetus and draped its membrane over Prima’s head like a veil (so David told me; by then I'd fled). Eighteen sheep and goats were slaughtered next, laid out in a pond of blood. All day the street was blocked by tubs of guts, women butchering.
And the town kept filling. We counted 18 impromptu chicherías in one block. New 400-liter chicha barrels rolled off trucks at all hours. Campesinos crowded the market, buying everything from sheep to sweatpants, cassettes to colanders. Men swaggered with leather gloves or helmets dangling from their belts. Wooden saints were paraded up and down, preceded by schoolgirls dancing the tinku dance I’d learned in La Paz.

(Courtesy Kate Wheeler)

Thanks to Joél and Saúl, no mestizo’s door was closed to us. Joél’s mother taught me to peel potatoes. His 27-year-old half sister, Fanny Murillo, fed us in her pensión. The notary, Serafín Taborga, filled us in on San Pedro’s foundation in 1570, its various sieges, its glorious past when it boasted 22 lawyers and 24-hour electricity. This surreal backwater, San Pedro, was like a nonfictional Macondo, the town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was said that old Don Ángel had fathered more than 16 children, if you counted in campesinos’ huts. Saúl’s sister Gilma had been gifted with second sight after a terrible car accident. Then there was Dr. Gabino Andrade, a retired judge, self-taught dentist (he’d recently botched an extraction), and former violin virtuoso who confided that Satan once played the violin through him.

A dozen of Saúl’s relatives were camped in the Villagómez ancestral house. They didn't know how old it was—they showed me where silver coins had rained from the decaying ceiling twice when they were children. The place stood locked most of the year; the family was sleeping in one room and cooking out back. Saúl came and went elusively, indulged and deplored in turns by his sisters. They cooked and washed, men drank and played charangos, older kids whined about the rustic boredom, and Fabrizio, age five, made a first disastrous experiment with chicha. Invariably, one of “their” campesinos labored silently nearby.

But none of the campesinos, the ones who would fight, would talk to me. Having seen serfdom in action, I couldn't blame them. Fanny said country people wouldn’t talk to her either. She'd been told she’d bring evil winds, hail, drought, or that all non-Indians were kharasiris, a type of vampire that lives on human fat. Again, Saúl came to my rescue. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he said. “Come tomorrow, my campesino is bringing a sack of corn.”

And so the next day, David and Saúl and his wife, Crecencia, and I stood with Severo Guzmán in the garden at sunrise, and Saúl called for chicha and Severo spoke: “Once a year, I get to drink with my patrón…Tinku is perfect, like the lightning. When it kills you, it kills you; when you have to die, you die.” Every so often, Saúl interrupted his own translation to exclaim with pride, “Hear how he talks! He’s my campesino! He’s my little man!”

My promise to Severo changed everything. The next morning, on the day the tinku was to start, I put on a campesina’s skirt and instantly ceased to be invisible. Gales of laughter followed me everywhere. “Looking good!” the campesinas cried. Guys would say, “Hey, cholita, country girl! Watch out tonight, we’ll kidnap you!”

The chicherías were full of stomping, dancing drinkers, gearing up. As I passed a doorway, someone grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me inside, commanding, “Buy chicha!” It was Siriaco González, a kid of 17 or so, eager to fight in his first tinku. Soon I was stomping in a circle, arms linked with Siriaco and his friends.

“Try my montera!” Siriaco showed me how to pry apart his tinku helmet’s stiffened cowhide to shove my head inside. It was tight, hard as metal. Giving myself a playful tap, I pierced my palm on a spike I hadn't seen. As I inspected the tiny purple wound, Siriaco whacked the helmet from behind, making my head ring like a bell.

It was almost four in the afternoon when two oldsters faced off in the dusty tinku plaza, shuffling their feet almost shyly. Then they went at it, swinging their arms wide in the traditional punches called waracazos. “Too old to do any damage,” a fellow bystander remarked. After a few haymakers, the antagonists waddled off arm in arm to get a little drunker.

But they’d started it. Seconds later, two fights broke out at once; the crowd closed instantly around each one, forming a tight ring. “Tiracarajo! Tiracarajo!” women shrieked. “Hittimgoddammit!” Dust rose from the holes in the crowd. We could see jerky motion, and ostrich plumes bobbling atop the helmets. As we tried to get closer to one fight, the knot of the crowd broke open, spilling out a man in a yellow jacket. Several guys came after him, kicking and punching; bystanders took the opportunity to land a few blows of their own. As the action surged toward us, David, Wolf, and I scuttled off to the safety of a balcony.

(Courtesy Kate Wheeler)

Getting to the heart of the tinku no longer felt compelling. Male or female, anyone close enough to follow the action stood a chance of getting punched, kicked, or otherwise caught up in the contagious, violent glee. In the first hour alone we saw broken teeth and noses, not to mention full-force kicks to the head and kidneys of a cowering loser, administered by teams of booted hearties deaf to the victim’s pleas for mercy until women hauled them off from behind. Occasionally there were flash points: A duel would erupt into a plaza-wide riot, a seething chaos of flailing limbs and screaming that lasted for several minutes until the defeated faction vanished down an alley as if blown there by a gust of wind—a deceptive lull, during which the women’s voices dropped to an ominous blubbering (“Brr! Brr!”) and everyone ran for doorways, cover against the rain of stones soon to fly from the alley’s mouth.

From the balcony I watched my 17-year-old friend Siriaco take beating after beating. He left his chest exposed, swinging his arms wildly. His shirt got torn off. He fell. Half-naked, covered with dust and blood, he eventually disappeared.

I found him sitting on a curb, crying like a baby. His face was crusted with freshly scabbing blood. “They killed me,” he sobbed. “They ganged up on me. I got too drunk. I didn’t win even one!”

“You were brave!” I told him. “You were never afraid to fight.”

“Really?” he said after a while. He smiled. “Buy me chicha!”

That day San Pedro reached fever pitch. Five people died in a road accident trying to reach the fiesta. Drunken couples screamed at each other outside the chicherías. Behind the church was a massive campesino orgy of drinking, dancing, flirting, singing, brawling, yodeling, and stamping the ground, all in a haze of dust, with occasional hails of stones and shouts of “We are men!”

I wandered all around, my campesina skirt earning me the privilege of buying drinks and talking to tinku fighters. It caused a new stir among the gentry at Joél and Prima’s wedding dance that night. Men threatened to abduct me. Women begged to try it on. It caught the eye of the town's most prominent living son, General Alfredo Loayza, who'd returned for the first time in 44 years. “I see you are a woman who knows how to dress herself,” he purred as we danced a tasty cumbia. Though he hadn’t watched today’s fights (he’d once been hit in the eyebrow by a stone, requiring over a thousand dollars in medical work), the general had a sympathetic theory: “Somehow the people have to express their resentment.”
And after dark the roar from the campesino party was terrifying. All night, squads of dressed-up campesinos trotted through town, the men strumming charangos, the women shrilling praise-songs to whichever roadless hamlet they’d walked from. When they passed the UNICEF dorm, the earth shook slightly.

The next day’s fights were ugly but conclusive. Two giants appeared from a nearby army barracks in camouflage and studded helmets. But even they lost to four young men who stood in a row and put away all comers. The four fought dirty, ignoring the referee, an old campesina who hit at them with her stick. I hated them, especially the thin one in black, steel-studded sadist’s gloves. Hours later, though, I met them behind the church—village boys toasting their victory, eager to practice English.

The next morning was the festival’s last; truck and bus drivers lined up in the plaza, calling out their destinations. When they had the requisite overload, they heaved into motion, jamming Saúl’s street and filling the tinku plaza with a gridlock of idling engines and diesel fumes. It took hours to inch our way out of town. Yesterday’s winners were loitering about, looking hopeful, but the chicha had given us bellyaches, and it was time to go.

As the Nissan lurched toward the pastry shops of Cochabamba, I considered all the worlds we’d traveled in and out of in this one small place, San Pedro. And the moment when I’d gone as far as I could go, and knew I wanted to turn back.
On the first day of the tinku, I’d gotten up the courage to approach a women’s fight. A young campesina in a red cardigan was winning, grabbing two fistfuls of her opponent's hair and slowly, slowly—enduring an identical grip on her own hair—shoving her enemy face-down into the dirt. She stood panting, fiercely victorious, in a tight, deep ring of delighted onlookers.

I pressed closer, trying to see. Suddenly, the campesina spotted me through the crowd and began screeching in Quechua. From a stream of insults, I picked out the Hispanicized putay, “whore.”

Who, me? Her black eyes drilled into mine, glittering unmistakably. By the unwritten rules of ritual battle, we were appropriate opponents: from different communities yet of the same sex, approximate age, size, and degree of intoxication.

I ducked and turned, taking cover in the human jam. As if through a mass of cotton I heard everybody laughing. The campesina berated me louder, clearly enjoying herself.

“She has won,” a bystander informed me. And then, luckily, everyone was distracted by a sound like baseball bats hitting sacks of grain. New fight. Men.

For hours I chided myself. I’d failed to defend the honor of the United States against that of northern Potosí. I should have poked that woman in the eye! How dare she call me a whore?

But no, it would have been intrusive, obscene. The following afternoon, I saw my enemy again. She still wore her red cardigan, but she wasn’t gloating now. Weeping drunkenly, she struggled with two young men who gripped her arms as they steered her down a slope littered with old plastic bags and human turds.

(Courtesy Kate Wheeler)

Weeks later, I was dismayed when a sociologist in La Paz told me that they could have been dragging her off to rape her. He’d visited San Pedro many times and was a confidant of Joél’s brother, Samuel Murillo. Gang rapes were common at the tinku, he said. Though all tinku rumors can be inflated, I easily found an eyewitness to an attempted gang rape at another tinku. Clearly a tinku’s sexual aspects cover the same range as the fighting—from terror to beauty, from brutality to entertainment. I’d experienced some of that range myself, from Saúl's flirtations to the taunts that followed my skirt—and to the excruciating drunk in a chichería who had lifted my skirt, talked filth in Quechua, and grabbed my hands hard, bringing me to tears of rage and pain. No one stopped him; David and Wolf were not around. I berated him in Spanish, and he'd laughed and crushed my hands, saying that gringos had no respect, until he decided, all on his own, to head for the bathroom, to puke and pass out.

Tinku had been appalling all along. The bloody teeth, the piss-slick alleyways, the damage and the posturing. Yet its ugliness proved how real it was, real beyond measure, beyond imagining. And for that, I loved it. Weeks later, at another tinku, I’d hear the particular silence that came when a man fell and did not get up. I bent over him, thinking to use my rusty EMT skills, but his wife cursed me away. Ten minutes later, he was still unconscious; I left, ashamed. What was I doing here?

I cannot forget the campesina, she who was willing to be my enemy. I’d used everything I knew to reach the frontier between our worlds. Of course, if I’d been from one of those villages, I’d have taken her up on her challenge. I’d have gained some injury or scar, surely, but I might also have a permanent friend. I can still feel her eyes burning, like the lightning, through all the distances between us.