FRASQUIA, Bolivia — If Bolivia’s public records are correct, Carmelo Flores Laura is the oldest living person ever documented.
They say he turned 123 a month ago.
The native Aymara lives in a straw-roofed dirt-floor hut in an isolated hamlet near Lake Titicaca at 13,100 feet (4,000 meters), is illiterate, speaks no Spanish and has no teeth.
He walks without a cane and doesn’t wear glasses. And though he speaks the Aymara language with a firm voice, one must speak directly into his ear to be heard.
“I see a bit dimly. I had good vision before. But I saw you coming,” he tells a group of Associated Press reporters who drove from the capital, La Paz, after a local TV report about him.
Hobbling down a dirt path, Flores greets them with a raised arm, smiles and sits down on a rock to chat. His gums bulge with coca leaf, a mild stimulant that staves off hunger that, like most Bolivian highlands peasants, he has been chewing all his life.
Guinness World Records says the oldest living person verified by original proof of birth is Misao Okawa, a 115-year-old Japanese woman, while the oldest verified age on record was 122 years and 164 days: Jeanne Calment of France. She died in 1997.
“I should be about 100 years old or more,” Flores says.
But his memory is failing.
His 27-year-old grandson Edwin says he fought in the 1933 Chaco war with Paraguay, but Flores said he only faintly remembers that.
The director of Bolivia’s civil registrar, Eugenio Condori, showed the AP the registry that lists Carmelo Flores’ birthdate as July 16, 1890.
Condori said there is no birth certificate because they did not exist in Bolivia until 1940. Before that, births were registered with baptism certificates from the nearest Roman Catholic church, authenticated by two witnesses.
“For the state, the baptism certificate is valid because in those days priests provided them and they were literate,” Condori said. He said he could not show Flores’ baptism certificate to the AP because it is a private document.
The grandson says the family had to show the government the baptism certificate so Flores could qualify for a monthly subsidy for the elderly.
To what does Flores owe his longevity?
“I walk a lot, that’s all. I go out with the animals,” says Flores, who long herded cattle and sheep. “I don’t eat noodles or rice, only barley. I used to grow potatoes, beans, oca (an Andean tuber).”
The water Flores drinks streams down from the snow-capped peak of Illampu, one of Bolivia’s highest mountains.
He says he doesn’t drink alcohol, though did imbibe some in his youth. He’s eaten a lot of mutton, and though he likes pork it is hardly available. He fondly remembers hunting and eating fox as a younger man.
Flores is rustic, to say the least. He’s unshaven with several months of beard, long fingernails and has been wearing the same unwashed clothes for some time. His clothing includes tire-rubber soled sandals, a wool cap and a brimmed hat over that for extra protection from the piercing Andean sun.
He says he has never been farther afield than La Paz, 80 kilometers away, and has never been seriously ill.
And he sorely misses his wife, who died more than a decade ago.
Of their three children only one is still alive: Cecilio, age 67. There are 40 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren but most have left the hamlet of Frasquia, a dozen homes located a two-hour walk from the nearest road in Warisata. His grandson Edwin, Edwin’s wife and their two children live next door.
Edwin Flores says his grandfather, who grew up in a semi-feudal society, long worked for the rancher who owned Frasquia until 1952, when the state seized major holdings in an agrarian reform and parceled them out to peasants who worked the land.
Although electrical power arrived in Frasquia three years ago, time seems to have stood still here.
As Flores spoke, peasants prepared chuno, or dehydrated and chilled potatoes, and tilled the soil with ox-driven plows. Donkeys brayed and sheep and cattle grazed.
Almost everyone was elderly or middle-aged. Most of the young are gone.
Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed from Lima, Peru.