With Pachamama (Mother Earth) constantly watching over her indigenous Bolivian children (and Father Sun silently, beautifully beginning and ending each day), an idyllic trek along the Salt Trail reminds us all that there’s a much simpler—if far more physically demanding—way to contentedly live life to the fullest.
At the centre of Toshifumi Matsushita’s road movie is Kunturi—a young boy who replaces his aging grandfather alongside his dad, Sauci, on the annual three-month caravan where their herd of bells-in-their-ears llamas will make the outbound journey hauling salt bricks and return with all manner of bartered foodstuffs, picking up nature’s bounty of medicines along the well-travelled route.
Virtually every aspect of human existence is brought to the screen through dozens of carefully crafted vignettes. Seeing the back-breaking effort required to carve the precious salt out of the rare natural white, inland lake (cross-reference below for a humungous salty sea that came into being due to a spectacular example of man’s folly-in-the-name-of-progress) near-wordlessly establishes the production’s tenor and tone. With deft use of shadow play, long shots and a truly original-instrument score (Luzmila Carpio), notice is immediately served that, like the subject matter, the slight narrative will not be hurried: every step of the way reveals a bit more of this last bastion of living off the land—at harmony with the environs and one’s cohabitants.
Thanks to Pachamama’s generosity and the instilled help-thy-neighbour mantra, it appears that Eden still exists centuries after the asp irreversibly turned heavenly nirvana into a never-ending survival of the fittest.
Tellingly, a couple of severe thunder storms and a threatening blizzard in the Andes never reveal their devastating fury and destructiveness. Kunturi’s leather-skinned grandmother eludes lightning and downpours while stoically finishing the self-assigned task of planting the quinua only to succumb from “my stomach hurts” a few days later. The good citizens of Uyuni calmly accept her passing before placing the ever-working matriarch into a cavernous tomb where—replete with hieroglyphic “graffiti” etched into the walls—her worn-out flesh will rot forever in the company of her skeletal relations.
An early stop at a labour-intensive mine comes with the sad news that Kunturi’s best friend will never see his father again. While “on delivery” in a village whose residents managed to corral a pair of Sauci’s AWOL beasts of burden, small-town justice is meted out on a unanimously scorned resident.
The film climaxes at the Tinku Festival, held each year to commemorate the victory/courage of the Incas over Spanish oppression (the “mock” violence of the staggering celebrants scares Kunturi yet, simultaneously, he’s filled with exhilaration all the same); only here are a few glimpses of hydro lines allowed into the frame—briefly foreshadowed by Puma socks and running shoes replacing the de rigueur sandals of another youth—seen like an unwanted guest who may soon control the party.
Magically, a love interest, Ulala, bearing an unintentionally whimsical name (cf Ooh lah lah!) is introduced. Kunturi absolutely beams as they play catch-me-if-you-can in the ripening fields of grain.
Everyone’s all smiles because, with his future bride now in hand, the cycle of life and contented, peaceful existence will begin anew. Like a Disney version of a fairy tale, everyone will live happily ever after. Yet, truth be told, it’s the Brothers Grimm who will more likely pen the reality-show version of the next generation’s travels. JWR