Deadly Cable Crossing Is Only Way Out

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July 1, 2009—Despite falling nearly ten stories from it and losing a child in 2008, the Combatas—like the other seven families of a Bolivian village—continue using a crucial river-spanning cable.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

Juana Combata used to cross the valley almost every day with her family-- hanging on to the cable that links her community to the rest of the world. But one day in June of last year, things changed.

A piece of steel holding the plank holding Juana, her husband, and her 3-year-old son, broke, and they plummeted nearly 100 feet to the shore of the river, hitting the rocks below.

Her 3-year-old child died instantly.

Juana and her husband Edwin survived with some injuries.

SOUNDBITE (Spanish) Juana Combata, Mother: "Nowadays I don't cross the cable that much, I'm afraid since I fell down. If I have to do it I go alone, I fell with my son, my husband... so now I just grab my baby and go alone with him."

These days, Juana still suffers pain from the fall. She usually remains at home, preparing food, cooking on the wood fire and washing clothes.

SOUNDBITE (Spanish) Juana Combata, Mother: "We fell around 30 to 35 meters. We found ourselves lying on the ground, my son was there... dead. But I can't really remember everything."

She was 4 months pregnant at the time, but gave birth normally, and the baby is fine.

She spends time with her husband and her baby, who is now nearing his first birthday.

It's harvest time for mandarins and Edwin is busy. Typically, he leaves with is daughter early in the morning and collects the fruit.

Nowadays, Edwin cannot carry mandarins like he used to do, because his back hurts him, but work has to go on. Each basket holds around 400 mandarins and weighs around 132 pounds.

And the fruit must go across the valley on a cable.

This cable is thinner than the one used for human transport.

As the load is only sent one way, it has to get some speed to reach the other side easily.

To control the speed, a rope is connected to the mandarins and pieces from a car wheel rim are installed on a wooden support.

Rubber from an old tire serves as a brake.

UPSOUND (Spanish) Edwin Combata: "This is the brake that we use when the load transfer occurs, it's rubber. At the moment the mandarins reach around 50 meters to the other side, you've got to calculate the speed so the load doesn't shock in front."

UPSOUND (Spanish) Edwin Combata: "That's the way to brake, but you can't brake too suddenly, otherwise the line might break."

SOUNDBITE (Spanish) Edwin Combata : "Now we are going to send the load, a basket of mandarins, with caution..." But braking has to be done smoothly or the rope may break.

On the opposite side, others receive the load and walk it to a shelter along the road to La Paz.

Eventually an empty truck will pass by and take the cargo, and then its a 5 hour drive to the capital city.

There are 8 families in the community served by the cable - they are obliged to cross every day as there are no plans to build a bridge.

SOUNDBITE (Spanish) Juana Combata: "The cable is the most important thing to us. If there wasn't a cable, how would we cross? That's the only way, our bridge."

Edwin reassures one family as they board the cable.

UPSOUND mother (Spanish): "I don't think it will come out, I don't think so (referring to the wheel on the cable)."

Edwin Combata (Spanish) "You will make it." (Aymara) "It's no problem, you will arrive on the other side."

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