by Amy Booth
I’m looking at the sheep, and the sheep is looking at me. I naively believed this to be an ordinary and unremarkable sheep, but from the way this girl is cowering from it, there is clearly a Pandora’s box of malice behind its blank, ovine eyes. This is probably a sheep that shouts sexually objectifying insults from truck windows. It probably siphons funds to Panama.
This was not entirely how I expected this afternoon at work to go, but after five months volunteering with Performing Life in Alto Buena Vista, fewer and fewer things surprise me.
When I go to Buena Vista, locals often think I’m lost. “You’re getting off here?” the bus driver once asked me, as I got off half way down Avenida Petrolera. It was hard to tell whether he was more incredulous or worried. “You know I’m going to Buena Vista, right?” asked another when I got on at the market.
Buena Vista is one of a multitude of barrios to have sprung up on the hills of Cochabamba’s Zona Sur, the part of town with less money about. There’s no running water or sewage and most roads aren’t paved. But twice a week, I come here to teach aerial silks and juggling to a bouncy gaggle of children between 7 and 14. Performing Life teaches performing arts, especially circus and music, to children in low-income parts of Cochabamba, and this is one of our centres.
Today, I get off the bus early to buy papayas and water for the children. In the shade of a tree by a corner in the road, Quechua-speaking ladies with long braids and white sun hats sit with wheelbarrows of fruit and a little stand selling fried potatoes. You can see why they choose this spot: from up here, the view stretches right across the city and into the contours of the Tunari mountains. Cristo de la Concordia, Cochabamba’s giant Jesus statue who looms over the city at night like a luminous ghost, is diminished to a white sliver.
When I reach our circus centre, the children jump at the offer of fruit. I don’t know how often they get fruit, but sometimes when I ask them what they had for lunch, they say “nothing”.
Calling this facility a centre is perhaps a little generous. It’s a local community building where we keep aerial silks, juggling paraphernalia, unicycles, teeter boards, and a few glasses for thirsty fledgling acrobats to drink from.
There are no functioning toilets, running water, or power. We have to remember to go to the toilet before we go there. It is a bare, concrete-floored hall with a high ceiling and a lot of little, glassless windows that let in clouds of dust.
Often while teaching, I turn around to hear the patter of running feet or catch a playful smile from the corner of my eye: local little ones too shy or busy to come in. Today, I saw eyes peeking around the door and looking a little glum. I went out to have a look and found Maria, 8, with her mum and two younger siblings.
“Are you going to come in?” I asked.
No response. Wide brown eyes in a very sincere face fixed on the ground.
“Go on, give me your rucksack and go in,” her mother called.
Then she said, very quietly, “I’m scared!”
“Why are you scared?” I asked, worried for a moment that the older boys who like to run around and play rough might seem intimidating to her.
“Because of the dogs,” she said.
Eventually, I understood that there were some nasty, barky dogs on the way home, and she didn’t want to walk past them alone. So I promised to walk her home after the lesson, and she came inside, leaving her little pink backpack with her mother.
Aerial silks is a highly physically demanding discipline, requiring all the strength in your arms, back, abdominals, and just about everything else. At the start of each session, we warm the children up with plenty of jogging, stretching, and partnered conditioning exercises to help them build up the strength and flexibility they’ll need to reach an advanced level.
It takes perseverance, determination and more than a little bravery, but even though Buena Vista is a relatively new centre, some of our participants can already do dazzling drops and rolls.
Maria and Javier are recent additions to the group, so I work on teaching them to climb the silks, as well as showing them a fun little position we call “the vampire bat”. Maria makes visible progress, and I’m glad that she decided to come to the session. Andy, who is volunteering with me, shows the more advanced participants how to climb the fabric, wrap and wind themselves in the air above our heads, and then release into a dashing mid-air somersault.
Teaching children to do circus presents all sorts of challenges I never faced in my previous life in a London office. Finding the words to explain complicated body movements to eight-year-olds stretches my brain far more than doing silks stretches my legs. Today, my group are struggling to get into hip lock.
The first time I taught a group to do hip lock, they told me they didn’t want to learn it because it was hard. But two of the girls from that first group are currently next to me, confidently swinging into hip lock and doing drops from it. The point being? Even things that seem impossible can be learned if you persevere and concentrate – a message that’s valid beyond the circus.
The gear put away, it’s time to take Maria home. She leads us nimbly over the crest of the hill, along a dirt road, and off down a path between some small, squat houses. There are, indeed, some very loud barks as we pass, although the dogs are inside just now. Maria lives in the valley between Buena Vista and Kasa Huasa, currently basking in the late afternoon sun. The path long since left behind for bare mountainside, she descends with such ease that I struggle to keep up. It’s second nature to her: this seems to be the only way of getting to school each day.
At the bottom of the hill, a sheep is standing at a street corner.
“Oh, I hate this sheep!” Maria wails.
The sheep shambles over to us and stands with its face by my knee. Maria screams a bit and hides behind me.
I consider the sheep. It is black and white, small, and covered in spines. Not spines like a monster has spines: spines from the local vegetation. It lets me stroke its head.
“It’s just a sheep. It won’t do anything to you,” I say. But as soon as I move, she shrieks and moves around me again.
Finally, I put my parasol up and use it as a sheep shield. She takes the chance to scurry off to her house, where her mother and siblings are waving at us. The sheep sniffs my leggings.
It takes me a while to find my way back up the hill without Maria to guide me. When I reach the top, I’m breathing hard. Perhaps Maria can skip the warm-up next time.
Written by Amy Booth
Photos by Isela Camacho