The Fiesta in the Town of Ghosts

A ritual fistfight in the Bolivian Andes reveals a profound but simple truth about men and boxing
A ritual fistfight in the Bolivian Andes reveals a profound but simple truth about men and boxing
October 04, 1987

Darkness. Punches from the darkness to my belly. I want to throw up. I want to cry. I want to turn and leave.

"Don't you worry. This fight ain't over, no, it's not. He got somethin' up his sleeve. Ali, he a magician. He—"

A pickax of a right hand cuts him off. My eyelids shut. I feel it land and rip through me.

"A ruse. He playing another game. That Ali . . . oooooh!" A Larry Holmes left strikes Muhammad Ali's head. Me, I can only feel it in the belly. Kneeling in the darkness in an aisle at Madison Square Garden. The only light shafting from a projector to a screen. Next to me, the black man is finally silent.

Ali's jaw sags. Holmes looks at him and, almost sorrowfully, throws his right again. Why? Why?

No other sport, no other form of art or entertainment—no, only boxing keeps rubbing our faces in this spectacle. Jim Jeffries, returning to be ravaged by Jack Johnson. Louis, pulverized by Marciano. Frazier, fungoed by Foreman. Masters, again and once more and again, coming back to be humbled.

What makes them do it? What makes me watch it? Duran, Leonard, Arguello, Foreman, Ali, Holmes, each of them walking away and then running back, risking injury in their decline. Money did it, people said. Pride. Ego. Go down! I almost scream to Ali on the screen. My eyes drop, glance sideways, briefly meet the black man's. Both of us look back to the floor. On the screen, they are stopping the fight. Swiftly I turn and walk into the night.

What does tinku mean?" I asked.

"Tinku means fight," the drunk waiter told me.

"Where is the tinku?" I asked.

"No, do not go to the tinku" the bespectacled engineer told me. I was sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Cochabamba, Bolivia, leaning forward, eyes wide. An Indian man in an oddly curved cowhide helmet—a replica of the metal ones that Spanish soldiers wore when they conquered South America—had just walked past, and all at once four street urchins were throwing mock punches and a word I'd never heard was moving from table to table.

"What kind of fight is the tinku?" I asked.

The waiter, grinning, placed my beer on the table. "Once a year the Indians come down from the hills into a village, put on those helmets and beat the hell out of each other."

"Where? When?"

"Listen to me, my friend," the engineer said. "Let this thought leave your head. People die on the roads that go there. Mountain roads, dirt ones, thin as an old woman's wrist. The trucks have many years, and the tires. . . . " He rubbed the bald crescent on his head.

"Many other fiestas you must go to in Bolivia," the drunk waiter said. "Go to the one in Copacabana, where the people climb the hill carrying rocks and then kneel at the top and pray to Mary and get drunk."

"Or the one in Quillacollo," said the engineer, "where people pour liquor over themselves and then roll on the ground in flour."

"The tinku," I said. "Where do I find these trucks that go to the tinku? Is it soon?"

The waiter laughed. The engineer removed his glasses, laid them on the table and slowly rubbed his face.

"Americano," he said, "listen well to me. There is no electricity there, no food or water safe to drink. No doctors when you get sick. And for three or four days after you arrive, no way to leave. Think. All this to see Indians make each other bloody?"

I started in darkness on a morning in late July, tossing my gear up to a cluster of dark figures in the back of a truck and then scrambling aboard to squeeze among them. Soon the old engine began to rumble, and we left the town behind. There was no room to sit, so I stood, shivering beneath a coat and blanket, and clutched a rope running down the middle of the truck's bed in order not to fall. I peered through the gloom but could not see who was making this journey with me.

Night lifted. In the Andean valleys that stretched on and on around us, the mist lay like a lake of white gauze. Now and then a solitary form, a peasant huddled in shawls and a peaked woolen cap, waded across the smoky lake. Its vast-ness mocked him, but he didn't seem to know.

At last it grew light enough to see my Indian companions: wool-capped babies, eyes closed, suckling their mothers; children contorted in positions not human, trying to sleep; teenagers shoving wads of coca leaves into their cheeks, sucking the juices to deaden the bite of winter; men with caps tugged low, cheekbones high, eyes narrowed, staring far ahead; women with the impassive faces Andean women wear—dark, stoic full moons rimmed by black bowler hats and two long braids running down their backs. The women sat upon sacks of grain and onions they would sell to the Indians coming down from their isolation in the hills to beat the hell out of each other.

The land lost its smoothness and began to convulse. Here and there we passed small adobe huts with bulls' horns protruding from the tops of thatched roofs to chase the evil spirits. Near the road, families stared blankly at us. The truck stopped, and an Indian hawked long spikes of sugarcane for the passengers to crack open and gnaw. No, this could not be: Now more sacks of food were being pitched over the truck's wooden siding, more round Indian women wrapped in five tiers of skirts were climbing in. The truck began to roll again. No room remained on the truckbed for both of my feet; I lifted one and felt the other begin to ache. "¡Cuidado!" ("Care!") someone shouted too late. I ducked, but the thorn-covered tree branch had already strafed me, clawing two welts on my neck.

An hour passed. The chill and mist of dawn were gone, chased off by an angry sun. We corkscrewed up a thin dirt mountain road, peeling sweaters and shirts, eating dust. With his hands, a man near the edge signaled how many inches separated the truck's wheels from a half-mile fall. I drew in my breath. You made your decision, I told myself. Whatever happens, happens.

Instead of looking down, I gazed straight up at the ribbon of road above. Staring down at us over the edge, outlined by an impossibly blue sky, was a pair of figures, motionless. I stared back at them, disturbed. "¿Hombres?" I asked, not wanting to point.

"No, espantajo."

"Oh, scarecrows."

"No, scarecrow. One man, one scarecrow."

I looked up again at the two figures. Everyone fell silent. It was something more in the attitude of their bodies than in their stillness: Which was stuffed with blood and muscle, which with straw? The truck crept along the road, the roar of its motor the only sound. Which of us three, I wondered, would be the first to break the trance?

Stomach coiled, mouth dry, hands twitching. Five minutes until the first Leonard-Duran fight. Closed-circuit projector busted, doors locked, 5,000 black men clenched outside, and me. West Philadelphia. Unlit ghetto. Rumors flying.

"Gonna fix it any minute, gonna open up the doors. . . ."

"Honky rip-off. Ain't never gonna see no fight here. . . ."

Fists pounding the glass. Stomach coiled, mouth dry. Go home now, get away. Three minutes left. But the fight. . . .

Shouts all around me. A surge toward the door: an elbow in my back; a knee in my thigh; an obscenity in my ear. Go home. Two minutes. But the fight. . . .

A bottle flies and shatters. Go home. The thick glass in the door shudders from the pounding. Go home. Shoved forward, knocked backward. But the fight. . . .

One minute. A siren. A riot, this is going to be a riot. What are you doing here? Go home. But the fight. . . .

Cannon shots across the Andes. The truck's exhaust system began to backfire, echoing off the mountainside. A baby began to wail. The sun's eye followed us, unblinking. More turns, turn-and-stop-and-back-up-and-turn-again-tight turns. The truck swayed and groaned, jolting over ruts, sending loose rocks over the precipice. Engine backfiring, stalling, restarting, truck pitching, baby wailing, tires spinning for grip at the edge. My God.

"I knew well a man who died on a truck here," said a young man. He smiled. A moan and then another. Children vomited, falling over each other to make it to the side, failing, one boy throwing up on another's head. My eyes darted. If only I could move. The truck lurched. I crashed against an Indian woman, bouncing her from sleep.

I wondered if I could figure out a way to eject if this truck began to tumble. Carefully I started to step over bodies, through tangles of arms and legs and sacks. My knee sank into someone's back. A pair of eyes glared up at me. My weight came down upon a hand. The man attached to it never blinked. Three more steps, two more apologies, I made it to the side. A loose plank. I wedged my sneaker into it and hoisted myself up near the top of the siding. I looked over the edge, straight down and down and down into a dry river gully.

Every bounce went through me; it hurt my legs and wrists to stay braced to jump. That's O.K., I thought. The others in the truck sat knitting, sleeping. I alone was prepared for a failure in the driver's judgment or the truck's brake pads or. . . .

A screech, a shot of pain, a body flush of terror. I looked down, panting, clutching. A chicken, dying from the heat and closeness, had lurched up in a death spasm and pecked a hole in my leg and nearly sent me over. The Indians looked at me and laughed, and then fell back to sleep.

To the Spanish ear, the village was called Toro Toro. But in ancient Quechua—a modern version of which is the language most of the Indians in Bolivia speak—it was thuru thuru, meaning mud, mud, and during the rainy season no vehicle ever reaches the village at all. We arrived in Toro Toro beneath a sky turning dark, local boys running escort the last mile, flapping their arms and legs ecstatically at our breakthrough from the outside, from beyond.

Stiffly I climbed down. "How far did we travel?" I asked the driver.

"More or less 130 kilometers."

Twelve hours, a scarlet sunburn, a coat of dust, a pounding headache, a mountain range and river crossed, with water lapping at the door handles. Eighty miles.

"When is the tinku?" I asked. "I don't want to miss it."

"Do not worry," a man said. "It will find you."

The mayor offered me a barren room in the crumbling town hall. No running water inside, no bathroom, no furniture. I smiled my thanks for the blankets and cot, dropped off my bag and walked the streets. Donkeys and goats bent their heads, grazing on weeds that grew between the cobblestones.

Now it was black. Little tongues of candle flame tottered down the streets, tottering shadows closely following. Nearly everyone was drunk. A wooden cup was thrust in front of me. "Tome," said a voice. I stared into the cup filled with chicha, a home brew made from fermented corn the color of a puddle half made by rain and half by a drunk with an aching bladder. I drank.

"Are you from Toro Toro," I asked my host, "or have you come for the tinku?"

He was a thick, well-fed man who grunted as he bent to fill his wooden chicha dipper. "I was born here," he said, "but now I return only for these three days. My belt, you will see how I use it. I whip it in circles to keep the people from coming too close to the fighters."

"I do not understand the tinku," I said. "Who fights whom?"

"Two peoples," he said. "The Laimes from the south against the Pampas from the north. They are all campesinos from the hills."

"But why do they fight?"

"Years ago they fought over boundaries or llamas or women," he said. "Tome."

I swallowed with him. From somewhere far or close came a melody—relentless, simple, plodding. A few repeated notes a man alone on a moonless tundra might blow through the hollow thighbone of an ancestor.

"There is a rumor that the priest will ask the campesinos not to fight this year," he said. "That he will tell them God does not want them to use violence."

"What will the campesinos do?"

"I do not know. Most of them are Catholics . . . but they also believe any blood spilled here is an offering to the earth goddess, Pachamama. No one has died for a few years in the tinku, but if someone does, they believe it will be a good year for the crops. Some in the past have even worn brass on their knuckles when they fight. But rocks are worse. It is only very bad when the women become involved, and the people reach for rocks."

We watched shadows stagger past us and buttoned against the cold. From some unseen source came the melody, insistent, relentless, working its way inside me and digging out a hollow. What kind of instrument would make that music, I wondered. What kind of man?

My host liked to talk. "There are no doctors here," he said. "Usually the Indians that fight treat their wounds with donkey dung. If blood is running from their faces, they try to lick it. They believe it will increase their courage."

He smiled with contempt at the chicha yet in my cup. I drank it and he dipped back into the dirt-streaked bucket. "A town of ghosts," I said, nodding at the passing shadows.

"That is so even in sunlight now," he said. "Except during the fiesta, 30,40 families is all that remain here."

"What happened?"

"Many people lived here when I was a boy, perhaps 6,000. A big market, haciendas. Then one night the Indians came down from the hills. They had been promised an equal distribution of the land, but they were tired of waiting. We escaped and hid by the river. Others. . . ." He made a noise from the inside of his throat, ran his finger across the outside. "Almost everyone else left after that."

"Do the people here have any communication at all with the outside world?" I asked.

"Tome," he said. "Yes, there is a telegraph wire."

"Uh-oh. I hope that wasn't the wire our truck snapped today on the road."

He shrugged. "Well . . . they say it is not working."

We stopped talking and listened to the music. "But why do they fight?" I asked again.

"Like I said. Many years ago—"

"But I mean now. Is it still over llamas and women?"

"No, not now."

"So, why?"

He shrugged, leaving only the trudging melody to reply.

Seventeen, suburban, scared and frail, drinking my first hard liquor with the brothers at Baltimore Arena between rounds of Ali-Frazier I. No other sport did this. Only boxing kept drawing me into different worlds . . .

All night I lay awake, partly because of the bacteria from the chicha at work in my belly, more from that music at work along my spine. It drifted to me from one end of the village, then the other; I would sit up rigid when it plodded past my door. Over and over, the same stark five-note cosmic statement: Isolated is a man, isolated is a man . . .

There was light now, and I had to find the music's source. I walked swiftly up and down the streets, turned corners, and finally came upon it: The campesinos who had come from the hills to fight. Drunken, red-eyed, they staggered about in small circles, knees bent, shoulders hunched, blowing through clusters of wooden tubes that resembled miniature organ pipes turned upside down. Behind them, women, equally drunk, flailed the air with flags of white rag, their leader snapping a sorry whip. I stood on the fringe and stared. Feathers and nails, trinkets and braids of cloth stuck out of the bands of their white peaked hats. On their backs, the women toted firewood and babies in colorful blankets. The men wore bright sashes and three or four layers of brightly colored pants, each pair hemmed progressively higher to show off the owner's wealth.

At the head of their ranks, a small statue of the village saint, Santiago, was carried high, a blue-eyed general brandishing a sword atop a horse whose hooves crushed the devil. They trudged toward me, looked right through me. One paused and urinated on my sneakers. I jumped back.

"What are they doing?"

"Praying to God," said a man.

I followed them for hours as they plodded, bent and hunched, in a trance induced by the chicha and the repetition of the tune.

"When does the tinku start?" I asked a street vendor. She rolled her shoulders; I continued my pursuit.

The Indians reached the church on the plaza, staggered in, kneeled and blessed themselves. I heard a terrific bang and rushed outside. One of the Indians was hurling sticks of dynamite into the sky.

I heard a sound like a horned owl desperate for a partner. I rounded a corner and saw a knot of people a block away. My legs began to run. A strong young man stood in their midst wearing a bright green vest and the curved cowhide helmet I had seen once before. He hooted again and kicked at the dirt.

Two women pushed him back and scolded. His chest heaved; he cast an insult at the man opposite him and made the eerie hooting sound once more. Abruptly he shoved the women aside, took three swift steps and threw an overhand right. A man crumpled, and the crowd gathered around him. Blood seeped from his nose. I pushed my way among them and looked down. The man on the ground had no left arm.

I looked up. Most of the crowd had already dispersed, the warrior in green was gone. Is that all, I wondered. A young stud coldcocks a cripple and it's over? Head down, I walked back to my room. I had come to see men fight.

No sleep. All night the two ends of the cot trying to snap shut, folding me up like a crepe. All night the sound of urine hissing against adobe walls, of dynamite shaking the sky, of whispers, grunts and that tune. Once I scrambled to my door and swung it open. A man hitched up his pants and ran, a woman scampered into the shadow of a doorway. Soon it would be dawn and they would be kneeling on the cold stone floor of the church.

Stiffly I stood, walked outside and threw cold water on my face. The bread in my bag had hardened, the cheese was turning pungent. My stomach howled for food, and the smell of it cooking on the streets drew me to it. A toothless woman shoved a plate of something mushy, wet with grease, before me. I considered it for a moment, then turned away.

Around me, regathering chaos: Who were these people who obliterated the lines between dynamite and reverence, dance and insult, sex and fistfight, night and day? I leaned against a deserted building and felt alone.

Without purpose, I wandered. I found myself standing at an intersection, staring dully at an Indian woman beating sugared egg whites and finger-painting them on rings of bread. I whipped my head around—tinku!

It began of itself, a milling and strutting of Laimes on one side and Pampas on the other, balled fists, outthrust jaws, jiggling legs, heaving chests, insults spat, hoots from the throat. The crowd—the corner men, the matchmakers and referee—all suddenly materialized. The matchmakers pushed men forward, comparing sizes and ages for fairness; the corner men whispered encouragement; the referee, my drinking partner, whipped his belt to shoo back the mob. The fighters, eyes glazed from chicha, mouthed Quechua curses and stared one another down. Two young men fixed the Spanish-replica helmets on their heads, the onlookers shouted, and the fighters lunged for each other. No feeling out. No sweet science. The Pampa threw a roundhouse right that missed, a second one that landed; the Laime toppled. The crowd whooped, the Indian next to me grinned ear to ear and pounded me on the back.

The town's only cop sauntered by, borrowed a man's cap and waved it over the unconscious loser. "¡Sin patas!" ("without kicking") he warned, then sauntered on. Finally the knockout victim rose, embraced the winner and smeared blood from his nose on the victor's shoulder. I smiled and beat my hands together.

A man who lived in the city shook his head. "I guess you cannot blame them," he said. "They live so isolated all year, they need this." I nodded without thinking about what he'd said.

Now the fights came off like firecrackers: a quick matching, a few jeers, a flailing of fists, a loser dropping, then hugging and humor. Few understood the kinetic advantage of a short, crisp, well-timed punch; the blows gusted in long, wild, angry loops. The fighting space moved with the fighters, the bloodied faces multiplied. Boys of 11 and 12 were hustled into the ring, men of 49 and 50. We in the crowd leaned on one another, cheering, grimacing, laughing.

Some helped up their foes and we applauded. Some kicked them and we screamed. One young man pulled a packet of white powder from his pocket, sniffed a little, wobbled into the ring and was flattened in two punches. Then a fat Indian woman waddled in to break up a fight. She caught a left on her ear and went spinning.

The church bells rang. Eleven a.m. Sunday, time for Mass. No one left the tinku. For the first time in a day and a half, no plodding music, no walking dead. Up on my tiptoes, I bobbed and weaved for the best view, knowing I would never see anything like this again.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a man throw a punch, miss the head he was aiming for and catch mine, a glancing blow to the temple. Everyone laughed, a few rubbed my head. I feigned wooziness and laughed, too.

Just then, the man who had accidentally punched me took a right hook to the mouth and crashed. Almost light-heartedly he sprang back to his feet and posed for me, grinning blood. Then he wrapped his leathery hand around mine and shook it.

Now heads were turning, I heard murmurs. The crowd went quiet. I craned my neck. The young stud in the green vest, the one who had coldcocked the armless man the day before and demolished three two-armed opponents of his own size and age today, was adjusting his helmet and shoving up his sleeves. I looked to the Laimes' side. A well-built man in his 40's, starting to go soft and gray, stepped forward and took four practice jabs. Something about his eyes—he never blinked.

A man behind me tapped my shoulder, pointed to him and nodded. I understood. This was their Louis, their Ali, their Frazier—past his prime, coming back to take on the young buck. Is he crazy, I wondered, that young guy is a killer. He's going to get his head kicked in, and nobody's even going to pay him. Why does a man who doesn't have to fight—have to fight? The crowd edged closer. And why do other people let him?

The fighters circled. The man with the belt forgot all about waving it and stared. The old champ took two cautious steps forward and let go a crisp combination, enough to make the young buck backpedal and think. The people pursed their lips and nodded—yes, yes.

On they went this way, unlike the other fighters, considering every thrust. And then a right like a rockslide came down on the old champ's cheek; he buckled to the dirt and it was over.

The people grew silent. The young man strutted. The old one's face we still couldn't see. He stood at last, blood running from his mouth. Our Louis, our Frazier, our Ali. . . . I let someone's head block my view.

When I looked again, he was peering at the blood he had wiped with the back of his hand, hopping on one foot then the other, grinning. Everyone was cheering and laughing and beating him on the back; I heard myself laugh, too. No, people don't fight for pride or money or ego. People fight, and people watch them fight, to feel. And if being human is to be born, grow strong, level off, then decline, fighting is a thing too much like being human to expect a man to stop and walk away before his ride is over.

There were a few more fistfights, and then there was a quiet intersection, an Indian woman beating sugared egg whites and finger-painting them on rings of bread.

In the morning our truck rolled out of the village. I stared through the slats, watching the Indians trudge over the ridge of hill, the other side of which I couldn't see.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)