MacIntyre: Edge of Existence - FINAL EPISODE - Tuesday June 18

macintyre: edge of existence
bolivia (4/4)
tuesday, 20.00–21.00

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the limits of human habitation in this four-part documentary series. In this final episode, Donal travels to the one of the most inhospitable places on earth –the high mountains of the Andes –to follow Quechuan Indians in their native environment.

Donal’s latest adventure has brought him to the altiplanoregion of Bolivia, a mountainous area some 17,000 feet above sea level. This harsh land is home to the Quechuan Indians, an indigenous people who pre-date the Incas. The highly spiritual Quechuan eke out a living in one of the remotest regions of South America’s poorest country.

Donal is initiated into Quechuan life when he arrives in a small town and witnesses a ritual to celebrate Pachamama, or Mother Earth. The Indians, dressed like Spanish Conquistadors, sacrifice a sheep to appease the gods and set its still-beating heart on the ground. A dance ensues, in which the Indians – fired by alcohol – engage in mock fights. Donal is dragged into the ritual, enduring kicks and punches before being wrestled to the ground.

The next stop on Donal’s tour is the vast salt lake at the heart of the region, the Salar de Uyuni. The enormous white salt flat is reminiscent of a polar landscape, and Donal’s guide explains that it is the only place on Earth where you can see thecurvature of the planet.

Under the blinding sun Donal feels the first effects of oxygen deprivation, making him all the more astonished to meet a man who lives and works on the flat. Wilfredo carves blocks of salt out of the ground, wearing a balaclava and sunglasses to protect himself from dangerous UVradiation. “It’s backbreaking work in terrible conditions,” Donal says – as he soon finds out when he volunteers to help. Despite being younger and bigger than Wilfredo, Donal is operating on half the oxygen to which he is accustomed, and is unable to complete his task of cutting 50 blocks by nightfall. As the temperature plummets, the pair retreat to Wilfredo’s shack to share cocoa leaves and tea.

The following day, a driver picks up Wilfredo’s blocks of salt for sale, and Donal joins him on his trip further up into the mountains. There he meets Raymundo, a Quechuan trader who uses his 50 llamas to carry the precious salt to the most inaccessible villages. Donal is to accompany them on their 60-mile trek, but their first job is to load the llamas with salt – no easy task as the animals dodge their handlers. “Grab the llama’s ears and hold on,” is Raymundo’s advice.

Once the journey is underway, Donal talks to Raymundo’s 15-year-old daughter, Fidelia, who hopes to go to university and become a teacher. She is aware that a more comfortable life is to be found in the city: “Many people suffer in the countryside,” she says. “It’s a very hard life.” Fidelia shows Donal how to use a slingshot to keep the llamas in line and teaches him the animals’ nicknames.

Donal is impressed by how close the Quechuan family is: “I suppose it’s because everybody has to do their bit – everybody has to be cooperative… to survive,” he muses. At night, the herders sleep outside in “unbelievably, bonenumbingly cold” temperatures reaching –10° C. After three days, they arrive in a valley and deliver the salt to the local people, who trade corn in return. Taking stock of his journey, Donal admits that he was initially “shocked by the brutality of the environment”, but he has warmed to the tenacious Quechuan people, who, against all the odds, manage to survive at the edge of existence.

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