Continuing with my profiles of people who have impacted my life, I’m writing this time about a little dynamo of a woman who called herself “Eleska” – a name she created from the initials LSK, which stood for Lene Schneider-Kainer. More formally, she was “Elena Eleska.” Her German name had been relegated to a footnote in history. Eleska managed to lure me to the remote and barren highlands of Bolivia, where she took me to visit villages far above the timber line so isolated that only Quechua was spoken. If I had fulfilled her wish, I might be living there to this day.
My aunt brought her home for dinner one evening when I was still in high school. A tiny woman in her 60s, she wore her short grey hair brushed back from her face and spoke with a thick German accent. Her enthusiasm was boundless. She was an artist by profession, and she wanted to start a cottage industry in Bolivia that would make woolen goods using high-quality llama and alpaca fibers and traditional native designs – unlike the garish pieces she had seen in local markets – for a luxury market in the United States and Europe. The idea was to empower women and help them rise out of poverty. It may not seem very novel today, but 50-plus years ago she was a pioneer. She was looking for U.S. government money to get her concept off the ground and she had managed to get the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt referred her to my aunt, whose job in the Office of Education was to help people get grants for their projects.
Born in Vienna in 1885, Eleska studied art in Berlin, where she launched her career with a collection of erotic drawings and paintings that were the talk of the town. She married a fellow artist and they had a son, but the marriage didn’t last. She fell in love with author-poet Bernhard Kellermann, and the two of them set off to retrace the route of Marco Polo, traveling by caravan throughout Persia, India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Tibet, China, and Russia, and returning on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Back home, her diary, paintings, and sketches from her travels became the fodder for numerous publications and exhibits. But Hitler was rising to power, and she knew she had to leave Germany. The only visa she could get was for Bolivia, and she and her son settled there in the Cochabamba countryside. Her son started a farm, and she had her own home nearby.
When I met her, I was studying Spanish and had developed a passion for all things Latin American. Llamas fascinated me, and the sweaters she showed us were beautiful. I was captivated. At 15, my career was a blank slate and I was open to even the most far-fetched options. She picked up on my enthusiasm, and we clicked. She started writing me letters about her dream in Bolivia. She wanted me to go to there and carry on her work. I seriously considered her proposal, and 10 years later I found myself flying to Bolivia on my first adventure outside the United States.
I will save the details of the trip for another day. Suffice it to say that after I arrived in La Paz, it took me five days to find Eleska’s home outside Cochabamba, which was in the open countryside miles from the nearest small town, Quillacollo. Her home was an oasis of beauty: a charming classic adobe hacienda with tastefully furnished rooms opening onto a lush central courtyard. Antiques, art objects, and paintings were everywhere. On the walls of the entrance hall she had painted maps of the world showing all her journeys. It was truly the home of an artist.
I was to spend the summer learning the business of collecting wool from the villagers in the mountains and training local people to make apparel, blankets, and rugs. Each day we would start out in the jeep with her driver/interpreter, Siles, and head for the hills. Some of the villages were as far as a day’s journey, high in the mountains. Along the way, we would pass herd after herd of llamas. Mostly we saw women and children. The women were the breadwinners, planting sometimes steeply terraced fields, taking their produce to market, raising chickens and other farm animals, herding llamas, making chicha (a fermented corn drink), and of course collecting and spinning wool. Eleska explained that the women seldom married because having a husband would mean that much more work. Their homes were very simple: adobe walls with thatched roofs and packed-earth floors and, if the family was lucky, a table and chair for a visiting guest of honor. I noticed that many of them had white or red flags hanging over the front door. Eleska explained that the white flags were advertising chicha, while the red flags meant that love was for sale. I tried the chicha and concluded that it must be an acquired taste.
When we arrived in the villages, the women would come running up to us with armloads of freshly shorn wool or long skeins of yarn they had spun. Eleska had also hired some of the more talented women to knit sweaters for her business. She would inspect their offerings and Siles would weigh the wool on a hook, interpreting what the villagers were saying into Spanish so that we could understand. Then Eleska would pay them, and off we’d go. The next morning her maid would wash the yarn and hang it on lines in the courtyard.
When possible, afternoons were spent in the workshop where most of the goods were made. Construction of the building had been paid for with funds from the U.S. government under what was then called Punto Cuarto – Point Four, the predecessor of USAID. It was humming with activity, and Eleska would check carefully with each of the workers to make sure that everything was in order. I remember watching a young girl with no arms weave a shaggy mat with a llama design in the center using her toes.
We also traveled to the different weekly markets, where the women dressed up in their hats and intricately woven shawls and carried their swaddled babies papoose-style on their backs. Eleska would buy wool at the markets, find out about new sources, and scout for talented weavers and knitters. I remember buying a simple grey wool shawl for the equivalent of 5 cents – I had been warned not to “spoil“ the vendors, but I felt ashamed to pay so little.
On weekends we would go on outings in the mountains with Eleska’s grandchildren. Their favorite place was a lake in the Tunari mountains where enormous fish were caught and brought back for Sunday dinner.
It turned out that I wasn’t as thrilled with the project as I had thought I’d be, and a leap into the wilderness that sounded easy when I was 15 had become more complicated by the time I was 25. And besides – I was in a relationship with a guy back in Washington. I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge. As I was leaving, Eleska gave me a ring she had made with semiprecious stones from Tibet.
My other souvenirs included the mat made by the girl with her toes, bedspreads and shag rugs (shipped separately) and a cardigan sweater that withstood daily wear for more than 40 years.
My Bolivia adventure is a distant memory, but every year I still make a donation to Heifer International to buy a purebred llama for a Bolivian family.