Monday, 19 November 2007

Chapters 26 - 29

Alright, I know, I know, stop heckling, yes, I've already added FOUR chapters this morning so what the deuce am I doing posting yet another bunch so soon when I've hardly given our ardent readership more than a passing chance to get acquainted with the most recent material, and, what's even more important, to respond to this new reading substance with cogent, thoughtful and provocative comment, which I might then reward by giving it wider distribution, or punish by ignoring it which is a course of action, I hope you all agree, most appropriate in this setting. Furthermore, let me... (muffled sound of gag being forced, possibly into my mouth, then:

Chapter 26
A Great Future Behind Me

Most embarrassing, our sortie from the city to steal from the already deprived. The decision to wind up the poultry project is rational, inevitable, unpopular. Luis continues to stack grain-bins and incubators onto the Toyota, ignoring the irrate Laika, their rage sliding from him, mud off a toad’s belly. Our orders are to snatch chicks, feed and fence-posts too, but such a move would verge on the suicidal. Since not one member of the Commission has dared accompany Elvira and I, we’ll decide.
Children lead the cattle and sheep home through lengthening shadow. The adults stand outside the metal shed, arms folded in displeasure, their backs turned on Luis, who is desperate to escape before the nationwide roadblocks start at midnight. No such luck for us; we stay to conclude the paperwork tomorrow. Ciao compadre mio.
I step away, past the Laika church towards the hacienda, studying the strands of Rigoberto's spider-city. So few outsiders live on the altiplano. Some projects and churches may hide in the smaller towns, but Aymara history, language, custom, communal duty and pride are like the thorns round which the shared web is woven. No admittance.
The mountains are fading, night takes hold. Unless I crawl into one of the animal pens, I may soon lose some extremities to frostbite, and who could blame the Laika for leaving me here to freeze?
But this fear is a product of my ignorance, for the Aymara would never treat a guest so. The local schoolteacher, call him Ismael, escorts me down a churned path to his home. Inside, the wife prepares supper under dancing shadows that hint at tools and sacks and fleeces. A slow, dung fire is crackling, pungent as peat. The smoky room is smelly, stifling, perfect.
“How long till the roads clear?” I ask.
“It's a serious matter,” jokes Ismael. “You might have to stay a month or two and help us in the fields. Then you can learn Aymara.”
“I’ve memorized a few phrases. But when I try them out, everyone complicates the conversation.” Ismael shrugs. “Try to understand. So many outsiders despise the Aymara tongue that we tend to keep it to ourselves.”
For the next hour, he lectures me on the subtlety and the logic of the language. Verb tenses, for example; one for the personally known, another for the indirectly known, and then there’s the unknownable. “The Spanish priests were considered liars when they claimed Columbus was a great man. How could they possibly tell if they’d never met him?” Even time and space are inverted in this harsh paradise. “The future is behind us,” says Ismael, “because we cannot see it.”
I concentrate, tongue-tied, until the children arrive for supper, sniggering a little at the singular guest but soon reprimanded. Ismael gives me a bowl of noodle soup and choice gristle, side-plate of potatoes. Just in case I might confuse his teacherly knowledge with wisdom, he puts batteries in the radio and tunes to a cumbia station for my entertainment. Funny how these awful songs are so beloved of the Aymara.
The family lay fleeces and blankets on the floor and, before I can argue about displacing them from their one warm room, depart. I have the whole night to regret Julio’s pulling out of this trip at the last minute. For some reason, he's been distancing himself. The staked animals breathe deep, lowing occasionally into the darkness.
I sleep well and only wake when Ismael enters to rekindle the fire. “One question, Jaime,” he asks as he tidies the room. “What is your opinion of us? Francamente.”
Choosing the bland option, I say, “You are very organized,” which he takes as a compliment. What I mean is ‘meticulous’, his neatly pared nails, the trim way he’s folding that blanket amid all this drudgery, the 57 verbal varieties that he detailed last night for carrying objects, whether pliant or bulky, wriggling or lifeless, grasped under an arm or hip-held, there's a word for each.. In the face of such precision, we are sloppy.
I cradle my cup of herb tea for warmth, and from the doorway sniff the dew. A scent of dung and vegetation, crushed by the night's weight, is borne on the breeze. Dogs bark distantly, wildfowl fly by, the altiplano grudgingly assumes the green mantle of its short summer.
You’d think that helping Ismael unstake his animals wouldn’t present much difficulty. He slaps a heifer on the rump to set it moving, so I do the same to the next in line. The headstrong beast, resenting alien discipline, swivels and charges. Pride induces me to take a temporary stand, to be butted, and then sit. Ismael has to restrain the calf, pulling at tufts of hair where its horns have yet to grow. Kids gather to laugh and point.
No sooner do I regain my feet than a passing dog that doesn’t speak Spanish (I cry, “Roque, Roque” in vain) growls, barks, nips at my thigh, tearing my trousers, drawing blood. A crowd cheers and, far from apologizing, its owner takes the piss in Aymara - fresh merriment. ‘Ba-aa-ah’ bleats a sheep, causing me to jump.
Allowances are not made in a marginal society. The Aymara have survived Bolivian gentry, Spanish invasion, Incas, Tiwanaku empire, Chiripa, back beyond recorded time. If scorn is an effective defence and they wish to laugh at me, they may.
But when some nearby youths, seeing as I’m hobbling and hamstrung invite me to the football pitch, shouting, “Jaime, jugaremos futbol”. I retaliate with “Up yours,” in English and, scratching at the night’s flea bites, limp on to the meeting. Elvira, her shopping-bag and kid, wait alone at the chicken shed.
The Laika must be occupied elsewhere.
“What about closing the project?”
“You didn’t follow the meeting yesterday?” In Aymara - no. "The hens and equipment are now community property."
“So why have we stayed over?”
When she replies, "To coordinate the roadblocks and marches, of course," I understand a series of related points. Despatching Luis was intentional, he’s been given no chance to eavesdrop, Ana’s opinion of my compadre is widespread, Elvira is a lynchpin of the movement.
We discover the men on the bridge by the river. They form a tight semi-circle and are discussing, I don’t know what, vehemently. Linguistically lost, trapped fifty miles from el Alto among amicably hostile peasants, I feel very vulnerable. Don’t be deceived by the red and yellow ponchos they wear, splashing colour on the drab plain; these folk are as soft as flowering cacti.
Decisions taken, preparations commence. Grunting and groaning, the Laika roll huge river-rocks up an improvised ramp onto their ancient truck, which sags but holds. To be on your own, with no direction home, Laika rolling stone. Twenty men (not a woman in sight) clamber aboard, armed with clubs, whips and slings. They signal for Elvira and I to join them. Rigoberto (hi pal) hands me a poncho and a multicoloured hat. “Stand in the middle and try not to be spotted.”
An hour into the journey, the truck halts and we all jump down.
"Come and view one of the glories of our past," calls Rigoberto.
I see a bumpy field enclosed by a wire fence. Closer up, it's apparent that enormous blocks of stone litter the ground, a giants' playground. We file in. Some of the blocks are incised with the double Andean cross, most are rectangular and plain, all are straight, not just straight but millimetre-perfect. Awesome; how'd they do that, given the tools available at that time? Mind you, any culture that exults in such regularity doesn't necessarily get my vote.
"The ruins of Tiwanaku," says Ismael and the other men sigh respectfully.
What happened to it?
"Latest research suggests a thirty-year drought around 1200," Ismael informs, "Causing the Tiwanakans to lose their authority and the empire to fall. The top layer of that pyramid," (you mean the crumpled hill?) "is full of human sacrifices."
Rigoberto shows me an artist's re-creation of the site at the local museum. Low, smooth, paved forecourts, open distances between the temples. It's fascist architecture, an affront to humanity, designed to make a person feel insignificant. Rigo and Ismael, you're not seriously claiming Tiwanaku as your inheritance? This is the work of slave-drivers, of Others, and it was evil, can't you tell?
We reboard the truck. If they are disappointed by my reaction, I myself am suddenly apprehensive, pondering sacrifices and the Andean double-cross.
At the next checkpoint, the toll collectors have been replaced by jostling peasants, who whistle and jeer at us threateningly before they recognize Rigoberto. The road is blocked. A driver mad enough to attempt to force this barrier would have to negotiate a hundred metres of jagged rocks, then take on our boulders, now levered off the truck. Only tanks could crash through, should the army have any.
Among the trapped vehicles, I’m glad to note, are a World Bank jeep and a UN execu-mobil. Their occupants eye us with suspicion - quite rightly. The Laika truck has positioned itself on the La Paz side of the roadblock, ready to ferry rural shock-troops to the city. I wave farewell to the stranded consultants and technicians.
We’re careful to stop at the last curve before the outskirts of the Alto, dismount and join the stream of travellers on foot. I’m even given a bundle to carry over my shoulder for disguise. We easily evade the police and military presence. The comrades all shake my hand. “Suerte, Wiracocha,” they say, as if I’d some mission to complete.
Transport is suspended throughout the Alto too, so instead of making for the Ceja and doubling back, like one would normally do in a bus, Elvira, child and I leave the road, walk the short cut over Rio Seco. The river is not entirely dry. Trickles of brown sediment meander past the gravel gatherers, at work despite the strike call. The city has ways of dividing its citizens.
“Elvira,” I ask, “ Qué pasa? Is Copcap falling apart?”
“No, getting ever stronger. Didn’t you smell the smoke from the millucha?”
“Yes and I felt a weird atmosphere on Monday morning.”
“Usually, a guilty person gets sick or dies after the ceremony. This time I do believe.........”
An landing airliner drowns her thoughts. I toy with the idea of visiting the so-called health centre (in a purely professional capacity, you understand), but doubt whether Vanesa will have managed to reach work today.
“............ and Ana is too closely watched to be of any use.”

Chapter 27
We Do

Time and again, I play to my invisible audience, the paIs back at the pub. Hey guys, I’m crowing, look, check this, can you believe what I’m up to now? They nod, smile, pass a chunk of euro-hash under the table, order the next round, toast the absent Jim Stalker.
Then comes the day of the wedding and this not-so-entirely harmless fantasy folds. I'm at HQ Villa Abdullah, within spittle range of the spluttering Ignatz, in this tent-shaped church, rain tattooing on the metallic big top. Bo-o-o-o-ring, groan my mates and tune out in disgust.
But the priest, beguiled by his role, has forgotten we're acting. He stops carressing the guitar and starts to crucify some youngsters for the offence of chatting during the performance. His voice shifts from sonorous to grating to strident. Lucky I made that five-minute appearance at last night’s brainwashing session (enough to have my name ticked by the short-sighted catechist), otherwise I'd be in trouble too.
Changing to tyranically benevolent, Ignatz next delivers a homily on the duties of the modern Catholic couple. Have you guessed? Husband sets out to work each morning, wife tends the house, awaiting her man’s return, meal ready. Still, I have to admit the priest’s efficient, marrying three couples at a time, knotting each in a golden chain (an intriguing form of bondage) before blessing and releasing them with a lukewarm warning not to drunk excessively today.
My own gormless pair, Euripedes in a dark suit, the bride corseted into her wedding dress, waddle down the aisle. The organist mangles Mendelsohn. At the porch, relatives drown us in white confetti and a rain-soaked photographer peddles future memory.
“Step in compadre,” says Luis, ushering me to the white-ribboned, white minibus that trails jangling cans (painted white). Just as well Rosa warned me of my responsibility. The padrinos de civil have bought the wedding ring and dealt with the registry. I take the newlyweds on a mystery tour and let’s pretend it’s magical. Accordingly, I’ve stuffed my pockets with banknotes.
We make for Viacha, a rundown garrison town on the edge of the altiplano. On the way, we’ll pass the high-security jail of Conchocorro, residence to those ex-dictators and drug-traffickers not still in power. Doesn’t look so bleak, similar in style to my house, guards and machine-guns replacing neighbours.
I’m tempted to reconvene the doting pub audience for this scene at the toll-booth. A grinning policeman wipes gravy on the sleeve of his green uniform, minutely examines the vehicle’s documents. He wants a bribe, doesn't he?. I hand over a twenty note. “Call him Zacharias,” jokes the driver and I almost do. “Sacarías,” he explains, ‘you would grab’ in Spanish. Wow - a Bolivian pun. Achilles and consort sit impassively in the back, either they missed the joke, they don’t consider it funny, or their clothes are constricting them.
From Viacha’s main plaza, the statue of nobody notable surveys cadets picking their noses in doorways, off-duty officers revving motorbikes, a wedding party traipsing through deep mud to the one restaurant boasting lunch and platos varios.
Both waiters applaud as we burst through the saloon doors. Maria, my god-daughter, star for a day, has a little word with me, thereby spotlighting her gringo padrino for those diners who have failed to react. Next, she totters high-heeled to a table, dabbing her chemically frizzled hair, and fusses over creases in the dress. Don’t worry, darling; by the end of the day you won’t even notice the beer stains and puke.
“Stay away from the reception until three o’clock,” Luis had insisted. On the other hand, it’s tough entertaining a pair of morons, their padrinos de civil and driver. No wonder Bolivians dumb out on beer. I signal for two crates and we settle into a hazy pattern of food and drink and drink and drink, getting hazier.
Arriving at the local an hour late. Not that I’m any expert in distinguishing areas of the Alto, but it is disturbing how unrecognisable this sector is, miles from anywhere, definitely nowhere, meaning I am sequestered for the duration.
Lilac lozenges and acres of mirrors adorn yet another futile attempt at Alto architecture. Draped from columns and high across the empty hall, white toilet paper welcomes us. The local, though obviously swabbed and scrubbed for the event, resounds to sticky echoes of fiestas past.
A scattering of guests is already parked against the walls, the women spendidly garish in shawls, bowlers and gold jewelry, the men dark-suited, understated. My rented suit stands out, unsuitable, an odd fawn colour, though I’m relieved to see the men open-necked. Like me, they proudly and mistakenly claim to have no ties.
The band renders the Wedding March, then the Blue Danube, requiring us to waltz rehearsal-less. We do, like icebergs in search of a cruise liner, while family members video the shambles.
Speeches next, starting with mine. I can only surmise that hearing me stutter amuses the assembly. Meanwhile the other speakers, even taciturn Luis, launch into model toasts. Bolivians are so oratorically gifted, but I would question the content - strict separation of sex roles, no spreading secrets outside the four walls of the home, lifelong devotion, love and honour. Don't believe a word of it and neither do they.
As proved by the dj starting to play cumbia. I have heard this described as happy, slightly mindless, dance music, but grab an earful:
Mereces que nadie te quiere
No vales la pena. ”
A song of desertion and blame for our happy couple.
"Traitress, undeserving of love,
You’re not worth the bother."
The guests sing along.

Involuntarily I whisper to Luis, “Ay, this music’s terrible.” He rises and remonstrates with the dj, has the music changed. Well, that’s quite impressive, I am flattered. El padrino requires a change of music, so be it. I know the Big 'Un is guardian of the newlyweds during this reception, but hadn’t quite comprehended the scope of my power.
Huanyos take over, the swing music of the Andes, which, you’ll recall, Ana employed to save the anniversary. Elegantly snaking patterns fill the hall. The women may have an advantage with those stiff swirling dresses, but the guys also shimmy to the rhythm.
Unfortunately, we can’t enjoy this dancing for long. Every few minutes, firecrackers announce new guests. Then, bride and groom, padrinos and parents are obliged to form a reception committee by the door. We greet the newcomers, accept presents (many crates of beer, but also kitchenware and blankets), while a nephew notes the donorrs and their gifts in a school exercise book.
Then waiters converge bearing trays of lethal concoctions. A bottleful of beer in a bulbous glass (they call it the chop and its impact does resemble a karate blow), the knockout ensured by follow-up glasses of alcohol. Guests are chided to drink up fast - this fiesta has no truck with the sober.
And so, remorselessly, stupor envelops the evening. I'm obliged to sit at high table behind the fruit and the wedding cake, inseparable from my charges, observing tables tumble and women screech as their men lurch into innocuous fights. Can this can be Pancho’s constituency, the backbone of the Andean revolution? The prospects for change seem shallow and illusory tonight. Somehow, these people cut untrustworthy figures.
And that invisible public back home, they must be jeering now, reaching for the orange peel and rotten eggs before flipping to another channel. I’d leave myself, if I could.
The waiters, in their enthusiasm to pump up the madness, press drinks on the drunk, and are glancing my way. Eventually, the head waiter, under the pretext of serving me a plate of food (roast pig in spicy tomato goo), calls courteous attention to what he terms, my cara larga - my long face.
“Señor padrino,” he lectures, “For the sake of your godchildren, please, you must enjoy yourself. Understand this, happiness is an easy bubble to burst.” And I’m cast as the prick capable of ruining the party. He’s right; an undertaker can’t laugh, the clown mustn’t frown and wisdom comes from unlikely sources, from a mad bum or a zen butcher or from this stooped, toothless waiter in a grimy white jacket.
“I’m not used to so much drink,” I say. “Might I be permitted five minutes of fresh air?”
“Claro padrino, Ven nomás pues,” and he escorts me past the toilets to a back door, opening onto a street of half-constructed adobe shacks and the stink of human shit. I stride off to where the air is clearer, where I have breath-in space to appreciate the fat joint stowed in my pocket.
Soon all rancour is fumigated. Who am I to complain? Suppose we transported Luis, let’s say, to the Geordie-Sarah wedding at Glastonbury. In terms of anthropological tourism, how would he fare on a vegan diet, readings from Don Juan and Kahil Gilbran, washed down with a tab of acid instead of beer? Question of what one's used to.
The five minutes extend into thirty (maybe some think the padrino has fled), but I do return, revived and willing to accept the torture as a rite of passage and a glueing of the bonds. They’re now husband and wife, ‘esposos’ (which fittingly doubles as the word for ‘handcuffs’ in Spanish). After all this effort and noise, our not-so-young groom will hardly dare divorce his Maria. Desertion more likely, a trick practised by the majority of Alto men, (though weirdly, cumbia songs reverse this fact and accuse all women of abandono).
Talking of which, in my absence, band and dj have conspired to reinsert their dumb music into the festivities. They can’t conceive the power of the weed to sculpt the world. First one, then the other giant speaker, start to distort, mangling the lyrics, leaving the dancers a white-noise bass riff to sway to and then silence.
The party has mellowed, the cake is cut and smeared unconsciously over suits and dresses and hair. Finally, most guests turn to considering how they will reach home. Slumped forms are hoisted to their knees, the relatively capable dragging the elapsed out into the rain.
Bride and groom, changed to street clothes, cordially invite me to their minibus, but wherever we are now, they’re heading for another part of town and I don’t want to impose. I wander back to the hall, in its sudden, splendid, reeking silence now almost a temple, at the very least a drunken stupa.
“Padrino,” the thin voice cuts in from the kitchen, “you are all alone.” It’s head waiter Basilio, utterly fatigued from running the night’s exertions. “Where do you live, padrino?”
“Near Villa Adela. ”
“Then I can give you a lift, I’m going to Mercenario.” He shuffles along the deserted rooms, locking cupboards and hatches. His car is another species of battered taxi. “Bien, padrino. Ya eres Boliviano.” But I’m not Bolivian. You don’t escape from one culture (if I’ve truly banished my home audience) merely to adhere to another.
Midnight. On a single windscreen wiper, he charts a course through the storm, a seasoned mariner whose watch never ceases. “I hear you provide credit,” he pries. The nod I manage is cursory. “My family also need work.”
“We only receive organized groups," though, I have been considering that Copcap must incorporate new elements soon, otherwise we’re in danger of becoming a private club. “What type of work does your family do?”
“Oh, we’re organized, right enough. All my neighbours come from the Bolsa Negra mine,” he answers, skidding the taxi around a lump in the road, possibly a body. “So, we can always dig.”
“OK,” and jot the office number on a paper napkin. Ana may have some ideas for a group of diggers. I’m more concerned whether that smell of gasoline makes one last Astoria inadvisable.
An innocent enough conversation to land me in jail.

Chapter 28
The Maskmaskers Brawl

Ana's signaling her disdain by sitting four rows in front and gazing down at La Paz, which is, admittedly, a fascinating spectacle. The city is stirring again after a strikebound week, but our bus is almost empty, so I can move forward to chat and be rebuffed. Ana, under tension at home and hounded at work (or viceversa) but, hey, since we are obliged to work together, a little communication might help.
During the rattly bus-ride down to the city, I try once more to fathom the depths of Ana’s resentment. Her woven bag, stuffed with charts and reports, proclaims zeal. A well prepared women, maybe she considers my approach lackadaisical, a charge I neither confirm nor deny.
We started this trip today at the Alto flea-market and have cut under the motorway instead of curving round the flanks of the smooth canyon. The route plunges into the gorges and gullies to the north. From this perspective, the crater appears gouged by giant claws. I suspect Ana of awaiting the opportunity to do the same to me.
Also, it's personal. Not just jealousy of Sandy; it's my links to Pancho. I'm the upstart intruder who's deprived the firebrand of her rightful part. Well, if surveillance is as tight as Elvira suggests, she's in no position to act and who put me in contact, anyway?
The bus parks at a dusty, grey football pitch that ends at an abrupt edge. The two apprentices in overalls practise passing the ball carefully - one miscue and it’s a helluva long retrieval. All the way down to - correct me, but is that a forest, an actual swathe of green in this part of town? Cool, but Ana’s already storming along without a backward glance. Wait, damn you!
Why has she decided to accompany me today? The maskmakers bore you (they're male-dominated and commercially buoyant) and, in your opinion, Alberto's an oaf. Yet, here we are, in search of the group’s fabled new workshop, which the office rumour-mill describes as 'luxurious'.
“Leave a sign when you find the place,” I shout after her. Ana's back recedes down a steep alleyway. I think she particularly hates my jokes. Seen her laugh, plenty of times, especially while she’s working with women on practical tasks. But hers is the type of fun that draws people together whereas English humour amuses by creating distance.
“Pura Pura,” states Ana, when I do catch up, her first comment in two hours. She’s pointing down to a distant jumble of chimneys and roofs below the forest. “The old industrial area of the city,” she explains, “where the factory workers beat the army in '52.” My sources are always doing this; presenting a ragbag of historical episodes, pieces of a fascinating jigsaw that never quite fit into a coherent picture.
Likewise, as coordinator of the faltering projects, I'm consistently being excluded from meetings and denied access to data. They must have decided I operate more effectively from a state of innocence.
Five minutes away from an important, difficult encounter, Ana’s only advice is, “Be strict, don’t take any nonsense from these guys.” Concerning? “Twenty thousand dollars in credits and not a cent repaid. We’re going to confiscate their materials,” she adds severely (metaphorically?). Us and whose army? Ana, rent collector and radical, is a puzzling phenomenon.
She turns sharp left and pushes against a gate of twisted fenders marked 'Auto Repairs'. In the oil-stained yard, an ancient hound too feeble either to bark or wag, guards the heaps of junky rust. It’s the parrot on the bike that alerts the men.
They emerge from below, where an entire building hides on a ridge among the eucalyptus trees. Alberto’s watchtower, as I dub it, is an ordinary three-storey brick box in an extraordinary setting, commanding a view of the northern and eastern flanks of the city, yet invisible from street level.
We descend by ladder to the upper terrace, leaving the biker-parrot and senile dog on duty. This top floor is a wonderful setting for a workshop, above the tree-line in full sunlight. Stairs lead down to family quarters, from where domestic sounds rise, the slap of laundry, squabbling children, food preparation. A path winds away into the forest.
Alberto, master maskmaker by temperament and profession, blocks the doorway of the workshop with a benign smile. He clasps our hands enthusiastically, before presenting us to the membership and guiding us to seats of honour. “How kind of you to visit,” he says, “a privilege.” Behind such a cherubic face, any number of vices might lurk. Ana purses her lips, spreads papers over the table, studies her fingernails, then the ceiling.
The large room is airy and bright, unlike so many other Copcap workplaces that face brick walls. Individual desks are covered with chisels, brushes, paints, gluepots, moulds and the masks themselves at various stages of elaboration.
Theirs is a living art, so I’m told. These outlandish, fantastic, preposterous masks feature by the thousand in the street-dancing extravaganza of La Paz, as well as in the fiestas which define community calendars in the altiplano. While the other handicraft groups strain to sell a few sweaters and ceramics, here excess goods are shipped at the end of the year to a waiting list of clients. Once in a while, Alberto consents to a special order from abroad, for an appropriate fee.
Their success has bred suspicion in the Association, though I shouldn’t think that many of the maskmakers are wealthy. The group numbers over seventy, their prices are reasonable, raw materials expensive and competition strong. But such a steady income explains the campaign to kick them out. What advantages do they gain by belonging to Copcap? Well, credit to construct this watchtower, for one.
Ana shuffles papers, crosses, uncrosses, recrosses her legs in a display of nerves. Perhaps not; an uncharacteristic dab of powder on her puffy cheeks, that slumped posture, her badly fitting jumper and jeans, rather suggest imbalance. Poor Ana, caught between the management and grass-roots, between the revolution and micro-credit. And I sense other cross-currents though I can't put my finger on them.
She clears her throat and, let’s get this straight, deliberately confronts the maskmakers. Among the gentler accusations: exploiting fellow workers, creating a factory instead of a cooperative, forgetting their heritage. “When I helped form this group, I never imagined you’d embrace insipid capitalism Your fathers who fought in ’52, would be ashamed of you.” She studiously doesn’t single out Alberto, but he’s seated at her side, nursing an expression of aggrieved indifference.
I watch her frustrations confront the men, then subside into tears. And blow me, before anyone can respond, she ups and scarpers with her gear, leaving me to face the mess.
The roomful of men overlook my presence and set to arguing among themselves. Either Ana has tweaked an inflamed nerve (in which case she hasn’t cracked, but played an astute card) or Alberto has genially engineered this clash for his own purposes. Or they both plotted it. Or trouble has been long brewing like a staff-room cuppa tea. You see how secure my grasp on these matters is.
In fact, they do consult me once, about the difference between a credit and a loan, but I have not the slightest idea, so they return to ignoring my presence. Without understanding the conflict, I can’t find a point of entry. Anyway, my Spanish would disintegrate under pressure and be replaced by some horrible hybrid, like Margaret Thatcher hectoring in French.
Yet, residual pride, the bit that still requires me to parody the professional, is pushing me to intervene, an attempt at reconciliation for the record, because on most points the group seem agreed. The debt, they say - what debt? And I'm with them. Mario once told me that for every dollar the Japanese so charitably donate, they recover five in vehicle and machinery sales. And the British have had an unpayable national debt since Napoleonic times, the point being that it should remain unpaid. Who are we to demand kilos of flesh from these artisans?
One thing is clear, though; the maskmakers come from different stock than the alteños. Racially similar, but these are the urban cholos, who've strayed from their roots. Once the vanguard of a near-miss revolution, they are now self-centred, soft-centred. They could prove useful to Pancho at a pinch, but the artisans of Villa Victoria cannot be counted on.
Money, ownership, control, is their concern right now. Should the group abandon Copcap at the annual assembly in a month’s time? And Alberto, draping himself in his silkiest smile and a mantle of reason, is whipping these differences into a fight. The opposition is centred around an undistinguished, roly-poly, little man, who ever so gently dissects the record of Alberto's term in office.
I’ve visited a range of truly humble rooms in the last six months. Everywhere, the occupants respect their space, binding the wormeaten benchs, taping broken windowpanes. On the top floor of Alberto’s watchtower, the newness and cost make the workshop worth destroying.
A bar-room brawl breaks out, bare-knuckle fighting not sparring. Calculated mind you; as far as possible, the masks and materials are exempted from the fray. It’s an action-movie matinée, lacking only the popcorn. But then a window smashes and someone yells “Extranjero fuera,” foreigner out. Albert has already disappeared and, yes, the tide of violence is washing my way.
Bastard, he’s fled through the scrapyard, pulling the ladder up after him! I can see one end sticking over, too high to reach. Soon the men will pour from the workshop and I’ll be trapped on the terrace. I race down the stairs, intending to escape through the forest.
Past the women (family, clan, servants?) who are ladling soup into bowls. And if they’re shocked at the sight of a panicked gringo waving as he flashes by, I’d like to see their faces when, presently, they carry lunch up.
Down beyond the kitchen, stacks of refuse rot on the track to the woods. I light an Astoria, ready to run should anyone pursue me, but it appears that I’m not the target of the anger. No sounds of battle encroach to this level.
Now that the adrenalin surge is ebbing, annoyance kicks in. At myself, for mismanaging the situation (there should always be a salvaging ploy) and at the maskmakers for misdirecting their energy so absurdly. The urban cholos will never again unite in struggle, for all the traditions they maintain. With their contraband markets and stores, they are bourgeois.
And while we’re on the subject of innocence, let me quote Julio. According to him, the topography of La Paz is explained by the fact that the altiplano was once completely covered by water. Then a mountain-sized plug collapsed at a point above where I’m standing. Yes, look up and from this angle, you can picture it. A thousand cubic kilometers of water per second, or something inconceivably thereabouts, ripping and gouging through, and the Chukiago crater was created.
Of course, Julio advanced this theory in the days when we used to talk. I fear that my cautious advances may have scared him off. He’s taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts and loose trousers. He avoids being alone in my presence. When operating on fantasy mode, I assume this is a final resistance before the dam of his repressed desires bursts open.
Well, enough pining, forest ahead. Odd that I’ve never come across this place. You’d think the locals would use it as a park or a resource, yet it seems quite deserted. The city’s below, an assortment of cubes and boxes splayed about the canyon. See, there’s a path cutting through and I should emerge at Pura Pura. Good route, this.
But, what a grudging apology for a green area, a pack of greedy eucalyptus and ungainly, threadbare pine, cocktail sticks with attached fuzz. And that’s an offal stench coming off. Why does human excrement smell so bad?
In we go, my antenna bristling.
Used toilet paper litters the sandy path. From a hollow over to the left, a whisp of smoke curls. Although the trees are evenly spaced, the wood is dark and dreary. I’m drawn to that patch of blue there, not flowers nor fungus, what is it? My daft urge to investigate.
A small dog yaps wildly and three men appear out of the makeshift tent, running towards me. All have knives. I’m so surprised that I don’t move. The tall man with scarred cheeks positions himself between me and the path. Forest folk, brigands, I think, Robin Hood taking from the rich - which, by their definition, means me.
“Buenas dias caballero, bienvenido,” smirks the spokesman. So, I’m the horseman again, dismounted and defenceless this time. He extends a grubby hand, palm upwards. “A few bolivianos to spare?” I should explain here that the man’s referring to money, not his countrymen, the same principle the French use when they count francs. “Don’t have any,” I protest, though truth is I’ve plenty, but no small change. Fine, let the mugging commence.
Except this is a very courteous affair, involving, first, an invitation to share his woman (for a small fee), but when she pokes her pitted face out from behind the blue plastic, I scrap all notions of loitering within tent. The tall one then offers, at knifepoint, a half-litre bottle with a jagged neck. The colourless, odourless liquid might be stale water until it explodes in my mouth. Germs obviously not being a problem, I take another swig.
When I regain consciousness, I find myself by a pond. No, I exaggerate, by a pool of brackish sludge that bubbles and burps. The sun is still high but I’m shivering in my underwear. At least the outlaws have left an alternate outfit, filthy torn jeans and an unravelling sweater of seasick green, fair trade. Barefoot, scrambling through weeds, down scree, clutching at branches, I nurse the rope burn around my neck
Weird. Despite my situation, all I can focus on is Ana’s game. How she trapped me into coming, screwed the meeting and then dumped me in this shit. Like a mouse on a treadmill, I clatter the words of that cumbia song round my pounding head. “Traicionera, mentirosa, engañosa.” - traitress, liar, twister. Wonderfully easy to transfer blame, so reassuring and utterly compulsive. At this rate, I might yet become a cumbia fan.
The railway track leads to the station, deserted for the past few years. Sold to the Chileans and then abandoned by them - another brilliant move to revive the national economy. But its emptiness is convenient now, as I sit in the gutted Victorian waiting room amid dust and cobwebs, weighing my options.
Which are few.
Not a cent, sorry, not a boliviano, to hand. Too far to walk home, I’m weakened, don’t know anyone in town - apart from Tzipi.
You’ve gotta be kidding.

Chapter 29
On the Art of not Dodging the Avoidable

Ding-dong, short, long, short, beep - beep - bip - bip - beep. Dammit, can’t remember the code that gains entry to the Israelis’ pad. And while I’d be glad to postpone facing Tzipi, reactions from people around town suggest I’m in need of immediate assistance.
The sight of a barefoot, destitute gringo clearly undermines the locals. Those whom I’ve asked for help, recoil, tut and spit, flatten themselves against doorways, make the sign of the cross. Actually, I could become quite proficient at this panhandling business. But the blisters indicate I have no sole for such a barefoot life.
In the half-light of the hallway, I don’t recognize the man who opens the door, nor he me. Then something about the hunched body, the claws doubling as hands, those bulgy eyes that stare and suddenly blink. Gotcha! It’s Yod’s unlikely Cuban partner, lizard-man, the Havana Gila. He lets me in.
Upstairs, some effort has been made to massage the chaos. The living-room is cleanish almost and, remarkably, a scent of grass does not hang in the air. Yod, seated on a full rucksack, is conducting a meeting. Glancing up, he cries, “British” with irony and some warmth. His clientele, Israeli refugees from el Lobo, a couple of European girls too, concentrate on packing supplies into a crate. No sign of Tzipi, so I can shirk the unpalatable a while longer.
Taking his own time, Yod finishes compiling a list before he comments on my appearance. “My friend, this is your punk fashion?” Gila snorts with delight, swivels his head round the room to ensure that the Yod squad are suitably amused. I set to explaining how I mugged myself.
“An idiot, just like Tzipi says. She’s told me all about you.” I bet she has. Nevertheless, Yod goes into the bedroom and returns with a pile of clothes. Fear of the gal hasn’t cured my desire, I can tell that when trying on her bright blue parachute-silk pantaloons. The kit also includes one lurid, throbbing Hawaian shirt, subtle as a day-glow sunset, plus an orange hat and broken leather sandals. Yod has a wicked sense of humour.
Over strong coffee, I listen in. The trip commences this weekend, two nights on the riverbank, three in dankest jungle, hammocks, bearers, snakes, spiders, alligators, malaria provided. One of the British girls is describing the state of her stools (runny and unpredictable) - she wants out of the adventure. But you agreed. Well, I didn’t realize how bad my guts were getting.
The Gila whispers to Yod, whose eyebrows dance.
“Whas-yer-name, you travelled much in Bolivia?”
“Been to Coroico once.”
Yod, in a fantastically fluid motion so very reminiscent of his girlfriend, springs to his feet and swaggers over. “Then come with us to Rurrenabaque.”
Tempting, but I’ve lot to do, evaluators arriving, groups falling apart.
“I can see you need a break. You’re working too hard, man, and there’s spare place in the jeep.”
No time, I’m afraid.
“Never be afraid. One day, two days. You can take a weekend, can’t you? We normally charge $50 a day. To you, it’s free. Trip of a lifetime. What more do you want? I like you. Coming?”
Yes indeed, irresistible offer, thank you. Any kindness is a bonus these days.
“Good. We leave Saturday, five in the morning, from here.”
Yod and the Gila exchange winks.

La Paz is so archetypically third world. Outside the apartment, a gang of five workmen hammer and chisel at the cement pavement, arduously revealing the course of a rusty pipe. The busy junction is cordoned off, stalled traffic paws and brays. Later the show will move to the next corner.
And that beggar woman in front of a bank which is surely going to collapse within the year to the enrichment of its off-shore stockholders. At least in the Alto, we all wallow in the same muck. Really, I lose altitude each time I come down to this city.
I’m walking through the town centre like a psychedelic parrot, more than ever pissed off at my misadventures. Tuesday, this has to be Tuesday. Oh fancy that, the Immigration Ministry is open late. I could trump the day’s disasters with a little visit to register the loss of my ID. It usually helps to dress sombrely, but right now I couldn’t give a flying fuck. We’ll just see what effect these clothes have.
And, no joke, I have lost an important document - the visiting card that Waldo Ventura gave me at the football game. The one time I used it, the guy claiming he was a plainclothes policeman, saluted and walked away fast. Now my little talisman has vanished in Pura Pura forest and I’m going to denounce this robbery to the Man himself.
Striding boldly into the lobby, as inconspicuous as a model horse within the walls of Troy, and as harmless, I hope. Even at this hour, queues snake around arches, officials stamp papers with a flourish, money changes hands and heads are turning as I mount the stairs.
Shirtsleeved lady cop, uniform hung over a filing cabinet, ignores me while she paints her lips, gazing into a handheld mirror. When I bluster, she acts superior, then aggressive and finally tries to fob me off onto the Tourist Police, whoever they might be. In this costume, I may look a fool but I’m not a tourist, dear.
She’s about to press an emergency button to summon help (I can see her finger sliding under the table), when I happen to mention that I’ve lost something belonging to my friend Waldo Ventura. Her startled whisper echoes along the ranks of desks - el capitan Ventura, su amigo del capitan es. “One moment,” and she retires to the office.
Picking up her mirror, I am blinded by my reflection.
“The Captain no longer works here but he’s requested me to attend to your case in any way that I can.” She assumes my passport has been stolen, though it’s safe at home. But the staff all agree that I do need a functional, pocket ID and, with a flurry of goodwill, photograph and fingerprint me. Is this a good idea?
“Please come and collect your card next week, sir,” and I suspect she also wants to salute, checking herself only because my outfit is so frankly ludicrous. “El Capitán would like to remind you that you promised to visit him and his family.” This last message is far beyond her comprehension, (in her experience, dignity and respect come clothed in suits). Must be like bowing to an ape. However, discipline overriding incredulity, she will file the incident under national security and forget it.
But I remember the yellow and black markings of the Strongest football team and wonder if, by this one capricious act, I’ve disturbed a wasp’s nest.
So what other goofy gaffe can I add to Tuesday’s woes?

On the bus to Mario’s, it does occur to me that entering his building in this garish plumage might be uncool. His appalled face confirms my stupidity. To compound the error, a clutch of conspirators is crowded into the small single room.
Rigoberto sits spectrally upright on a hard chair, medicine-man Alejandro is preparing a potion on the gas-ring. “Waliki,” says the latter, Aymara for good. “ Though I didn’t expect you to turn up looking like an election pamphlet.” Orange and blue apparently correspond to the colours of a particularly corrupt political party.
“He’s attempting to be clandestine,” cracks Rigoberto.
The condor and the fox totally unsurprised by my sudden arrival.
“You knew I was coming,” I blurt out.
“We read the coca,” the lanky man admits.
“.........And then summoned you here,” concludes Alejandro, chuckling. The revelation seriously freaks me, the more so since I cannot decide which man is playing Don Juan and which Don Genaro. On cue, my stomach aches below the navel and I’m drenched in sweat.
“I was just preparing this for you,” the curandero says, passing me the hot drink. “Now listen, carefully.”
But I don’t recall a word of what they say, the drink perhaps, or hypnosis of some kind, though an impression does remain of tall tales. Charred herbs smoulder in a dish. I stand ready to leave, cleansed and spritely, suddenly aware of the absurdity of Yod’s outfit. From a trunk, Mario hands me his second-best overcoat, completing the day’s wardrobe.
The emperor has new clothes.

Chapter 22-25

AYAYAYAYAY! Mi hermana esta reading esto and she didn't even realize I was writing these incredibly witty introductory commuents. Auweiayay. Wie konnte sowas geschehn? Aaanyway, this is like the warm-up act. The great artist is about to come on stage and I have your attention for a few brief moments to impress you with my inimitable wit, grab my fifteen seconds' worth, get you on the mood and get the hell off. Without further ado, Ladies and Gentlemen, all the way from La Paz, Bolivia, the greatest (... fill in the blank ...) in the world.... MISTER.....BO......NESTOOOOOO! (wild tumultous, applause, please.)

Chapter 22
Round Squares

Resulting in a bout of the flu, locally termed gripe and certainly I’m griping. Everything aches, even my hair. Asunta, delighted at having a bed-bound patient, brings platefuls of greasy eggs which will, at least, plug my bowels so I don’t have to crawl to the toilet.
This is no quiet refuge. Three mornings a week, evenings too, Ignatz broadcasts an hour of recorded bells, then breaks into his holy karaoke. I swear, the faster his flock abandons those candy-floss temples, the more strident he grows. And when Ignatz desists, the neighbours start on cumbias. To get silence, I have to keep my tapes playing.
Dylan drifts through tendrils of fever: ‘Someone says you’re in the wrong place my friend, you’ll have to leave.’ A message from my childhood, visions of rolling papers, sleeping bags and bodies, resurfacing now in this brick hole where nothing will occur until the end of time.
Asleep, I keep dreaming that I’ve woken.
Fever throbbing, lapse and relapse.
Asunta, feigning deafness and senility, potters off, piss-pot in hand. Oy, my spider appears to have disappeared. She swept it away, I know she did, though I’ve told her never to clean up here. And leave that towel! I may need to wank.
No excuses; this is my longest sexless spell since I was 14, when Joanne found Carol drinking slops in a pub (for the unitiated, that’s filling a pint-glass with leftover beers), and brought her to the nest. The range of migrant visitors was one advantage of our chaotic household. Not that Joanne procured me partners, but she often spent nights elsewhere and never asked questions. Mum’s the word.
Joanne slept with Carol a few times, but soon lost interest. I had to know about those adult bumpings and heavings in the night and Carol needed an aikido partner, her martial artistry leading inevitably to sex.

That I eventually rebelled against my upbringing infuriates Joanne. Her son in a boring job, contriving to be normal, leaving the commune in Bilbao, he buries his creativity in a classroom. “I point to distant horizons,” she complained, “and you swim to the nearest desert island.” Nice turn of phrase.
Aldous Huxley rightly dubbed Proust ‘the invalid in the bathtub’, wallowing in accumulated grime, sponging himself with the suds of all his previous washdays.
Memory, confusion, desire.
A week in bed and the silt does surface. Cum, scum.
Fade to Proustian echoes.

Convalescent sits near ex-garden. Hard labour has not transformed this yard into an oasis, though some weeds do manage to sprout through the cement pathway. Wrapped in a shawl, I’m reading “Chaos Theory; an Introduction”. Joanne’s huge collection of books and records, shoplifted or permanently borrowed from friends, served as refuge when weirdness intruded. Pick up a volume, pump up the volume, withdraw. The reading habit remains
I found this tome on the second-hand bookstalls in La Paz, somewhat heavy-going for an invalid, but fascinating nonetheless. Except that chaos, is the wrong word, implying disorder and disharmony, as in this house and yard, as in all my jobs or relationships. But the book is really about flow, currents, smoke, swarming insects, lichen on rocks, the breeze at play in a cornfield. Look at the scudding clouds; unpredictable and yet any child can draw a cloud shape.
And any child could predict stormy weather ahead. In my pocket, Pancho’s message beats, cryptic, latent. Should I burn it, eat it, shred it? Assuming the note’s his and not from Pamela. Ha! There’s a thought, but she’d never stray to badlands of la Garita.
Julio glides into the yard. He’s dragging his own cloud-cover, despite the brilliant light provided by a slanting sun. “I thought you’d look after your trees. Three of them outside have been snapped.” Don’t get mad at me, Julio. If only you knew how glad I am to see you. Spill out your toubles.
Oh! The office hass got to him. Thes state tevelision channel is beaming prime-time clips of the unruly peasants of Kolapata, while Channel 13 showcases the drunken sub-prefect. Edmundo storming, Osvaldo coldly flaying, mutual recrimination is rampant at Copcap headquarters. “Rumour has it, you’re conveniently suffering the longest hangover in history,” Julio taunts.
Then, relenting, he remarks, “You are very pale,” and massages my upper back, threading his thumbs over the nicotine-scarred lungs. Julio must feel the energy we generate at every touch, though I don’t know what it signifies to him. All Bolivian kids, walking the streets arm draped over shoulder, mere comrades apparently. Innocence or disguise? The other temptation is to tell him of Pancho’s note. Quick, think of a distraction.
On the miserable sum I pay her (less than a hundredth of my allowance), Asunta is founding a zoo, her substitute family. There’s a scruffy mongrel pup, Chappie, who’s excavated under the makeshift garden fence, allowing. the hen and chicks to scrabble among the remaining lettuces. Letting in the hen.
So I tell Julio, “Watch this”, and play Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’. The hen, attracted by the rabbinic whine, sways in front of the radio like a belly-dancer. But the joke’s in English and neither translates nor impresses.
After such an effort, I collapse and he bears me, stair by stair, up to the bedroom, wipes my forehead with the towel (the one that would prove incriminating if forensically tested), closes the curtains and casts this enigmatic comment at me. “You need a girlfriend,” which reverberates in the naked, darkening room. A warning to go straight? No, I interpret it as an invitation - with a girlfriend for cover, we are free.

In spite of the headache, I’ve decided to keep the appointment at la Garita. Soon my destiny will be forged, whether in the ense of shaping or counterfeiting, time will tell. In my weakened state, I’m content to stumble aboard the sun-drenched Especial. And soon I’m asleep.
Down already. My intention is to climb to today’s appointment, square by square. In a city without parks, parking lots and rubbish tips are the open spaces, and the one green areais the pitch of the football stadium. But these plazas have presence, though many are no more than traffic islands. People meet in the squares.
I’ll start at the shapeless Perez, the popular end of the city centre, take in the Alonso, a square square and then to the circular plaza Kennedy, which honours this popular Bolivian folk-figure with a statueless plinth, the result of a dynamite attack. From the Eguino I could walk straight up, but my batteries are fading.
I stagger onto an equally infirm bus that takes the slope at a wide angle, emerging on the great BA, la Avenida Buenos Aires, broad, busy, impersonal, fully meriting the status of avenue. And if a few more trees might add distinction, the telephone cables and bar-signs form an adequate canopy.
But, a short hop away, at La Garita, I feel uncomfortable in a way that I never have in the Alto. Dusk deepens, the yellow gleam of streetlamps accentuating the shadowplay and shady deals. An entirely suitable site for acts of political seduction.
A strange species of square this one, elliptical on an inclined plane and so steep that one climbs rather than crosses it. The steps join a central stairway, stained red from blood or paint, which an elderly man in overalls is tenaciously hosing. Still, the stench of urine is overpowering. At the top of the stairs, either side, bulk two cement tombs, one stencilled ‘Police Holding Cells #3’, the other ‘Neighbourhood Centre’.
I sit on a drying step. Next to me a tree droops, trapped behind railings so that it can’t escape. Roaring traffic circles, and once grand buildings (this was the main route to the Ceja until the motorway) now stare with indifference on the scene below, the wheels, the deals, the stealing and the teeming - chaos for beginners.
Headlights jitter and glare.
“Bien pues, you made it.” A phlegmy voice startles me out of my skin.
The thick glasses identify Mario in long overcoat, woollen scarf and angled hat.
“No hables, it’s not safe here. Just follow me. ” And he crosses in front of the police cells, over the road to the Ciné Monumental Roxy now showing ‘Way Out West - Part Two’ and ‘Golden Eye - Part One’. Shaky, weakened, I am monumentally unprepared for this encounter.
Couples and loners are queuing in a foyer of glorious decrepitude.. Mice scuttle between velvet drapes and columns of flaking gold paint. Chrome fittings dangle. This picture palace is disintegrating.
“Buy two tickets for the stalls,” Mario commands, no longer vague but myopically alert. The crisp banknote, recently issued and worth the paper it’s printed on these neo-liberal days, seems futuristic in this mildewed flea-pit.
To my surprise, a poster is advertising ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’, one of Joanne’s all-time favorites. She played the Dylan soundtrack so often that the album contained more scratches than music.
I walk over to the uniformed usher, point to the poster and ask for confirmation. Mario blinks disapprovingly, we are trying to stay inconspicuous. I get what deserve, a precise and baffling reply. “Si señor, es la misma pelicula con diferentes actores.” – yes sir, it’s the same movie with different actors. A scowling Mario nudges me through the dusty drapes.
We take a seat by a side door. Certainly a different movie, must have been the only Western poster they had. How disappointing. The day’s exertions tell and I’m soon asleep, waking somewhere in the next film, in time to see the husky enemy agent squeeze an admiral to death between her admirable thighs. Engrossing. She’s in a sauna, repeating the manoeuvre on Bond, when Mario suddenly hisses, “Vamonos.” Three of us vanish through the emergency exit.

I have no sense of direction, so doubling back along dim alleys to confuse me is quite pointless. Through mud and mire, pretending to cover a fair distance, before we approach a green door (why not?) and enter a cobbled yard. The sound of traffic nearby carries plainly.
The owner of the api joint, surely a comrade, transfers his customers to an outside kiosk and closes the wooden doors behind us. We are served the thick, hot, sweet, purple, cornmeal api drink, then mine host retires. Pancho removes the ski-mask that makes him look so clandestine and loosens his jacket.
The man’s a plain speaker, thank goodness, but it’s still like tuning into the middle of a three-hour talk. “There is an Andean pattern of trading. Foreign economic models won’t work for us.”
To test his temper, I mention my stroll around la Garita, all those Chinese pencils, saucepans, plates, clothes, microwaves, computers. Floated in container-ships over the Pacific, hardly Andean commerce. The people aren’t going to rise, not while they have a throwaway, consumer society to entertain them.
Politely, emphatically Pancho states, “We don’t reject property rights or commerce. Indigenenous structures will be modernised.” I’m wondering if he always talks like a pamphlet, when he taps a finger on the plastic tablecloth and hooks mmy attention: “We demand sovereignty. The altiolano is ours, you know The Alto is ours, too.”
Stillness, intensity, purpose. Steam rising from our glasses of api, the oil-lamps flickering. We could be travellers at a medieval tavern, but for the Saturday night traffic an adobe width away.
I light my Astoria. Polishing his spectacles, Mario begins telling the story of Ché’s last smoke. Pancho resumes; “The Alto is an extension of the countryside and these are our folk,” he says matter of fact. “We can take the city anytime.”
I’m striving to maintain a cynical distance from this monologue, but the probing brown eyes, compel. He hasn’t made an offer yet, simply that inclusive, seductive ‘we’.
Let’s get this straight; we, that is the Aymara, and the Quechua, and I........ “Pancho, if the uprising is indigenous, what’s my role? Che, the outsider didn’t exactly achieve anything.”
“Your support will be useful, of course it will.” Pancho nods to Mario.
“We’re going to block all access to the countryside, take the Alto and starve the city,” says the old-timer, froth forming on his lips, api spilling onto the plastic tablecloth. An oil-lamp splutters agreement. “Don’t forget, elecricity and water supplies pass through the Alto. And they’ve a million people to feed downtown.”
Sounds logical, crazy, doomed. But why are you telling me? Think I’m a paragon of trustworthiness?
Pancho raises a forefinger, his gaze stretching beyond this fetid room to prophetic infinities. “The airport’s the key. Once the bastards in the zona sur can’t fly away to Miami, they’re trapped.”
“But, Pancho,” I interrupt, “next to the airport is an air-force base and there are two other garrisons in the Alto.”
“The army conscripts are either countryfolk or alteños. They’ll change sides, the middle-level officers too when they see what’s happening. An alliance campesino-militar, that’s our goal.”
The braveheart syndrome, I suspect, one more heroic defeat to blur the line between hope and illusion. Locked in a cubby-hole, unable to show his face on the street, does Sr. Clandestino feel the pulse of the times or is he raving?
Pancho regards me coolly. “So, we can count on you?” My trembling could herald the return of the flu, or perhaps it simply reflects the absurdity/enormity of this moment. I sneeze into his handsome aquiline face. Seduced by the off-chance of a footnote in history, I’m drifting into conspiracy. Quiet and earnest, Pancho is arming a mad venture into which I will fit like a square peg in a black hole.
Surely now’s the time to say, I’m not a politico. I’m a dreamy onlooker who smokes dope.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Just carry on as you are. You may never know when or how you’ve helped us.” He rises, shakes my hand, Mario orders me to wait five minutes before leaving. They’re gone. I swill the dregs of my cold drink.

Chapter 23
Pressing Engagements : part two

Mist has penetrated the city, rain threatens, the sour api aftertaste repeats in my throat, a fitting encore to that epic, corny scene. Saturday evening and I’m footloose and shackled, so I phone Tzipi but she’s out, probably holding court at El Lobo. However wobbly I feel, the need for a joint will pull me down there, if only to clear my head of the meeting.
On the Max Paredes street, the pavements are chock-a-block with seated, standing, strolling vendors. The crawling traffic belches and farts. A snatch of mystic doggerel pops into my head:
“In the bazaar they buy and sell.
Why they do it I cannot tell.
But since they persist,
They may as well.”
Sure, Pancho pins his hope on the Alto, but don’t give me that shit about Andean trading patterns. All markets are the same. And his fellow-Aymara down here in La Paz, are we going to starve them into joining the revolution?
I’m flattered that Pancho should offer me the cameo-role of concerned gringo in his B-movie, ‘Tupac Guevara Rides Again’. but he’s simplified the issues. For all the decent urban folk, it’s the rogues who prosper.
Witness: at this moment an anoraked thief is stalking the lines of stalled vehicles. There he strikes, hand poking through a bus window to snatch a bowler hat before scurrying into the sidestreet like a rat down a drain. The poor señora howls, as well she might. Those hats are expensive - and personal; the indignity of another woman wearing it.
I’m privileged. Simple for me to step from street-stress to el Lobo, where Bolivia, if it exists at all, is an exotic backdrop. Israeli travellers cram the café but Tzipi’s radar gaze fixes on me immediately. With a gesture, she parts the sea of bodies and saunters this way.
“So long I’m waiting for you.” A short squall of Hebrew persuades two compatriots, deep in conversation and a beer, to vacate their seats. Impressive.
“I want to hear all your news,” she demands.
Unwisely I reveal that I’ve just been meeting some friends and then get flustered when she asks who.
“Nevermind. We’ll have beer,” she says and with a flick of the wrist attracts the lone, harrassed waiter, reels him in across the room on an invisible line.
But the alcohol on top of the flu, the api, the monumental thrills of the day, sets my head spinning. I barely manage to reach the toilets and even then have to hammer on the door first and argue with some idiot inside, just to vomit acceptably near the bowl.
“C’mon, I’ll take you home, you’re a real mess.”
In a reversal of Julio’s heroics, she guides me down the stairs, halts a cab, bundles me in. The radio’s playing some forgotten song. I hang out of the window, spewing. Zippety-do-da, Tzipi today, my dream scenario and I’m miles away.
The little I see of the living room, before the next surge of gorge hits, confirms that the apartment remains a squalid mess, even without Yod and his Cuban side-kick Clothes and mugs and ashtrays and magazines litter the floor, two or three large cushions serving as stepping-stones. Mama Rosa would not approve of such housekeeping.
Tzipi leads me to bed in a dark, stagnant room (Carlo’s?), promising to return later with tea and a joint. It’s all I can do to undress and flop under the covers before blacking out. I assume it’s a feverish dream that she gives a blow-job during the night; for when I reach out, no naked form is curled beside me.

“If you want morning coffee, come and get it.”
In Yod’s room, the curtains drawn tight against the morning sun, Tzipi is seated at a computer. She smiles, motions me closer. She turns, offers her face for a kiss. I peck at her cheek, she switches to full lip contact. Squinting over her shoulder at the e-mails, this apology for a he-male blushes.
“Good, so you’re feeling a little better.” Slightly roused, and curious about last night, unwilling to enquire. “Yod is very concerned about your health.” Meaning, she’s in contact with him at his jungle eco-lodge, and he’s informed of my visit. High technology for a bunch of backpackers.
“I’m OK, thanks.”
“Good, because I really want to hear all about those mysterious friends you met last night,” she purrs like we’re sitting in an espresso bar discussing recent bar-mitzvahs. “I’ve finished here. Let’s have a joint over breakfast.”
She strides gracefully into the living room. Her pantaloons of blue parachute silk cling far too alluringly for this hour of the day, her sleeveless vest is short and tight. I sigh and follow obediently.
The floor has been partially cleared of refuse. Each to our cushion, cross-legged. I lean against the orange sofa, fondling a cup of excellent coffee. She’s rolling a joint, composed, ramrod stiff - I’m getting that way too. Her quizzical glances unnerve, so I whip out a cigarette and launch into Mario’s Astoria tale.
Che, wounded, captured, spent the last night of his life on the mud floor of schoolhouse in La Higuera village. The jubilant army officers retired to await orders and, leaving a conscript on guard duty. Che had finished or lost his tobacco and the soldier, who smoked Astoria, the cheapest and the best, gave his prisoner a handful of the cigarettes, which Ché crumpled, stuffing them into his pipe.
“So, Che’s last smoke was Astoria.”
“How very interesting that these friends of yours discuss Che in such detail.” Oops! She sucks on the joint as if it were that famous pipeful, meditates a while, hands it to me. “And strange that you don’t remember their names.”
“Well, I only just met them.” Silence.
“And what did you do with them last night?”
Talk, anything to divert this weird insistence. “We went to the movies.” I tell her about the confusion over the western and that spy film, the scissoring agent.
She interrupts me. “And how did this Bond girl grip?”
“Like we’re sitting - straight on.”
“Ah. That is not the way. Put your cup down. I will show you,” and before I can take evasive action, she’s beside me and has wrapped her legs around my stomach in a wrestler’s grip. Below soft skin, ridges of thigh muscle ripple and tense. The hold tightens.
“This is not the way either,” she explains.
“Really,” I gasp, quite proud that by holding my breath in, I can just resist.
“Yes, but here’s a trick. If I let go,” the air escapes involuntarily and before I can take another breath in she’s reapplied the pressure, harder, a cute form of suffocation. I’m blacking out.
“Yod would like to know who your friends are,” she says straddling me now, “And you’ll tell me, won’t you?”
Still imagining my latest pratfall is a lark, I try, “What a delicious torturer you are.” But whereas Carol’s displays of aikido were all balance and flow, Tzipi’s is not playful. She’s slid sideways on, her knees at one kidney tucked into the corner of the rib-cage. Meanwhile, my right arm is twisted and locked to the verge of pain.
“This is really the scissors,” she exclaims and squeezs those knees, “Now talk.”
When I regain consciousness, we’re both naked. She is riding the most prolonged, most exorbitant erection of my life. Who knows what secrets I have blurted out. My word is my bondage, I’ll be bound.
One last comment as she’s dressing. “It’s good you finally met Pancho.”
I really wish they wouldn’t keep saying that.

Chapter 24
All Sorts’ Eve

“What a first degree wanker you are, Jim.”
Sandy has returned, hair cropped and streamlined, beaming energy after a successful guerilla bungee-jumping expedition. “Yeah, I found this bridge over an amazing canyon. But don’t sidetrack me now we’re discussing your male fantasies. And the worst part is how you enjoyed the whole episode.”
Upstairs at sunset hour, liberally sharing her grass and scorn, while the adobe turns orange, the brickwork bloody. “Your life has to change right now, and we’ll start with this damn bedroom. Go get lost for a while.”
I descend to Asunta’s new fiefdom of blaring tv and radio. Though she sleeps in the understairs cupboard, the old dear has claimed thewhole ground floor. She’s preparing an evening meal we won’t eat; Sandy’s vegetarian, I’m queasy. Glancing at the ceiling, Asunta enquires, “Tu amiga, what’s she up to?”
“Just rearranging my room.”
“Well, as long as nothing’s scratched. El licensiado would be most annoyed,” she comments (nothing upsets her more that the threat of Edmundo’s displeasure), then resumes charring onions in a gallon of fat.
When I venture up, Sandy’s transformed the bedroom by some sleight of feng-shui. Looks like she’s shifted the walls. Bedframe, desk and chair rug have vanished. The mattress is at an odd angle on the floor. “What splinters? Toughen up, Jim.” A blanket covers the window above which the spider once span. It’s going to be dark.
“Why look out if there’s no view?”
“Just that I could do with some daylight.”
“Fine. We’ll make another window up here, a circular one. Got a hammer and chisel?”
“Tomorrow, Sandy, please”
She leads me over the landing to her room. “This is your meditation space.” In the corner, on a batik scarf, rest an incense holder, a crystal, a mottled rock. She’s radiant, full lotus under the simple altar. “Faces east. Sit here fifteen minutes every morning to clear that crap from your head.”
“Let’s roll a spliff and you can hit me with more psychology.”
She laughs, “Hit’s the word, isn’t it Jim. You’re a masochist as well as supreme wanker. I wanna hear more about this Carol.”
“Well, I owe her a lot. I mean, she saved me from being a nerd. There I was in a backward mill-town, all clogs and booze, the hippy kid, a complete outsider. Imagine, I listened to Zappa and read books, apart from having this outrageous mum who collected weirdos. It kind of counted for something when I arrived at school reeking of sex.”
“I bet this is your safety-net, how you always tell the tale.”
“No, look, sure, perhaps I was a bit young, but Carol wasn’t much older. Talented too. She was writing a rock-opera on the Ancient Mariner. ‘We were the first that ever burst into that silent sea.’ That’s the chorus I remember. Never seen a production, mind you. Wonder what happened to it.”
“Don’t worry, you’re still wearing the albatross around your neck, pal. And all that aikido bit, seems to have left you twisted. That’s why you fell for the Israeli girl’s honeytrap. Strong women and weak males, you go for them. You’ve no willpower. They pull you in.”
“ Julio’s not weak..”
“Not physically. But you see him as inferior because he’s Bolivian. That’s your subtle racism, said yourself that his views are dumb. From a cool height you really look down on Bolivians, don’t you?” Not on Panch, I don’t. But I haven’t said a word to Sandy about him, though I almost trust her. It’s just hat such an intriguing story she’d have to spread along the gringo trail.
“And the gay trip?”
“Ah, that started with creepy Dennis, another of mum’s prize finds.”
We are getting closer to where maggots crawl, I’m sure we are, when there’s a commotion outside. Tyres skid, stones clatter against the metal street-door, and Chappie, apprentice guard-dog, howls warning and welcome.
“Odd - I almost never have callers.” But a fair crowd is now coughing and shuffling downstairs. Sandy shrugs, gestures me away. “Your scene. I’ll meditate till you return.”
Downstairs, Asunta has turned off the tv. This could be serious.
Luis, fulfilling his pledge to visit, introduces a familyful - his greyhound lean wife in pollera and bowler, a son, the son’s wife, their three children. He smiles widely, revealing isolated teeth. Asunta, expectant as a first-night audience, has changed into her vicuña shawl for the occasion. She’s knows what’s up.
As the visitors compose themselves and the sofa groans with delight, Luis’ smalltalk floats like rocks. What a nice house - wrong, but Sandy’s working on correcting the vibes. Unseasonably warm weather - wouldn’t know. The national soccer team lost again - so, losers lose, what’s new?
The son is a younger version of his father, soft and amorphous, same toady smile, though he has gold-edged teeth and an ample, dimpled wife. His kids, aged ten to three, sit squeezed, rigid and silent, on one armchair. They’re so frightened, not even their legs swing. Maybe they’ve been told, “If you don’t behave the gringo will sell you abroad,” a control ploy I often hear mothers use on the buses.
The minutes stretch excruciatingly. I light a cigarette to disguise the smell of grass wafting down the stairs, send Asunta to make tea (treating her at last as a servant), and wonder what this invasion portends.
Hands on knees, the adults stare at me, while the kids only dare concentrate on the floor. Finally, Luis clears his throat. “Querido Jaime,” he begins, “in consideration of the great respect in which I hold you, I have come to beg one small favour.” Doesn’t sound promising, might be money. Another gob of phlegm circlulates in his mouth. The Copcap designers forgot the spittoon.
“My son is getting married soon and we are searching for a padrino.” Godfather! Oh God, new territory.
“I’ve no idea what that entails, Luis.”
“Nothing to it. You simply have to be present.” Not so much a lie, more, partial truth. There’s a lot more to being a padrino, but I don’t know yet and Asunta, basking in the reflected spotlight like she’s met royalty, isn’t letting on.
Not to excuse my weakness, but you know how dope spreads sentimental manure by the truckload. Even as I mumble, “OK, I’ll do it,” Sandy’s verdict echoes, “Pull you in, they pull you in.”
The guests exhale collectively. Luis and son march out, and I think, well, that didn’t hurt too much. But soon they’ve returned hauling sacks of potatoes, peas, beans, corn. Then they lay the carcass of a gently bleeding sheep at my feet, and two crates of beer (that’s twenty-four bottles, ye gods). Asunta orchestrates fervent embraces, after which the another round of silence looms.
Luis manages “Bien, compadre,” and rubs his hands together speculatively. Etiquette probably requires I seal our new relationship with a similar comment, but, way too late, doubts are arising, cold feet march brainwards. Luis, unattached to the Copcap groups or management, expressing no opinion in the office or on the road, to whom I may have spoken thirty words in nearly these months, has coralled me into a false intimacy.
And as for the son, whose name I don’t recall despite being introduced fifteeen minutes ago (it’s something classical - Oedipus, Plato or Dionisio), how can he can be in urgent need of a wedding with those growing kids?
Sandy appears in shorts. The sound of beer bottles popping has vanquished that of one hand clapping. She whoops delightedly and is dragged centre-stage by Luis’s wife who’s marvelling at the sudden appearance of a godmother for the big day. Fortunately, Sandy doesn’t have enough Spanish to know what they’re planning, or she’d leave. That Aussie capacity to party anytime, anywhere, indefinitely, carries us into the night.
And for a while the booze does animate our company. Luis remembers his rural childhood, even converses in Aymara with Asunta, until his city-bred wife’s flat, bilious stare dissolves the sparkle. The son, a blob of scant intelligence, leers at Sandy’s bronzed legs.
I’m mightily tired of these guests long before they depart. At two of the morning, Asunta is huddled on the floor, blissfully asleep. The wives can handle their liquor, drinking from a calm, deep well and Sandy bubbles, an emeritus professor of fizzie-ology. But Luis is weeping and sweating, the man lacks teeth, and my new godson, Archimedes or whatever, is slurring idiocies in my face.
It’s the Parthian shot that defeats, always. As the family, carrying the kids, stagger to the car, Luis shouts back, “Don’t forget, compadre, you’ll need to take courses with Padre Ignacio.”
Hell’s bells! “When’s the wedding?”
“Not till next Saturday.”

By noon, realizing that Asunta isn’t going to furnish any practical information on the duties of a padrino, we decide to consult Doña Rosa. On the way, I again try to convince Sandy of the Alto’s marvellous, organic unity. “I once shot this slow-motion documentary of a life in a termite colony,” she replies. “Up to a point it was interesting, but no reason to become a termite.”
She’s only relents when a dozen big dogs trap us in a narrow street. “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky,” I intone, raising right hand high. The pack parts and lets us through. San Roque, patron saint of dogs, I explain. “Doña Rosa taught me the trick. I’m sure she’ll impress you.”
But we find her stooping to sweep the stoop, red-eyed as ourselves, though not from all-night dnnking. Rosa’s trembling, should send us packing, but her innate hospitality propels us inside, where kids are cowering and the teenagers scowl at smashed windows.
“You may as well know,” says Rosa, “Viviana’s pregnant. And this is her father’s response to the news.” She points to the wreckage. His wife, bathing her face under the standpipe, displays extensive bruising. Inside one of the rooms, a girl is wailing rhythmically, softly.
My pal, the nephew, comes reluctantly over to shake hands, in his belt a unsheathed commando knife. I introduce Sandy, explain the situation to her, watch her expression change from horror to outrage.
And it’s not just the edgy lull that’s making the yard unnaturally quiet. The dogs? “Goni and Bobby?” I ask, fearing the worse when the smaller kids start crying. “Thieves killed them last week, ” laments Rosa, “Threw poisoned meat over the wall before breaking in. We all slept through it.”
At least, we’ve avoided Diego on the rampage for his daughter’s honour. Drowning his sorrows in a bar probably, listening to cumbias that will convince him how women always destroy a man’s tranquility.
“I’d rather he was here,” roars Sandy. “I’d give him a piece of the action.” Rosa dismisses my translation with a shake of her head and invites us in for tea. As we enter her room, unknown faces peer from behind a door. “We’ve taken in lodgers,” she explains defensively. “Money’s tight.” Call it dope prescience, but I don’t dig these newcomers.
It’s hard communicating with Rosa today, like wading through thick fluid. When she notes how stoned we are, I explain our condition as chaki, a hangover from Luis’ visit and recount the deal. The clock ticks, Rosa tut-tuts, but his naming me padrino hardly surprise her.
“Lot of people in the mines used to do that. Pick foreign managers and engineers, thinking they’d get favours that way. Tempting but it’s the worst possible choice. Ser padrino, madrina, compadre, comadre es para la vida.” A lifelong link. “Couple of years and the foreigners have gone. You’ll do the same, Jaime.”
“OK, but what are my duties?”
“Not too much. The ring’s bought, the reception’s already arranged. You have to accompany the couple and greet the guests. You’re there for the future, to solve their problems.” Financial? “Not always.”
“And Ignacio’s courses?”
Shouts in the yard, a slamming of doors, exclamations, explanations, Ana marches in. “Don’t bother introducing me to your compañera,” she sneers, the choice of word implying sexual relations. She storms out. I’ve forgotten what jealousy does to a gal. Sandy, pure soul, registers nothing of the drama she’s caused, assuming that Ana’s reacted to Diego’s behaviour.
“Please excuse her,” says Rosa, “She’s upset. We all are,” and pours more tea. “The courses before the wedding are obligatory, Jaime You’ll have to attend them. But I can’t understand why Luis did this now. Tonight is Todos Santos and it’s the wrong time to conduct any personal business. He should have waited.”
“What’s she saying,” asks Sandy. I tell her. “Yeah? The day of the dead - all souls? Ask Rosa what goes on here.”
Rosa does better, takes us to the room she’s cleared for her aunt. “For three years after the death we prepare a meal on Todos Santos. The family welcomes the soul and serves it food and drink. The next day we’ll accompany her back to cemetery.” On the table, a black-bordered photo of a stern lady dominates the shrine. Piled around her are bread, pastries, fruit, alcohol, coca and cigarettes. Benches line three sides of the otherwise empty room. Rosa may have recently joined the adventists, but customs prevail.
“Freaky,” declares Sandy.
“You’re welcome to stay if you wish. We’ll be up all night.” Thank you, no; the scene is fraught, smouldering, lacks only Diego’s return to reignite. And if he doesn’t show, the women may well quarrel among themselves, if only to assure Auntie she’s back. One trusts Pancho has not based the rational, lofty, Andean republic on his family’s example.
Leaving the dearly departed, we depart.

Later, much later, Sandy insists on a walk. Drizzle strengthening to rain hasn’t deflected the dead, who guided by the uncanny flute music, home in. The darkness is filled with strangers in the night, spirits in the sky and, strangely, laughter in the rain.
“So much death within the last three years,” Sandy sighs, observing the kids move from house to house, filling their sacks with bread in return for prayers.
Doors stand open. We enter a few places, mumble our hare krishnas and hare potters before the shrine, chew coca and smoke a while, always welcomed, never staying long. The party atmosphere is studiously maintained by the living; they are not mourners but survivors, celebrating a visit from the deceased. What shocks us most are the photos of young adults and children.
“Shit,” says Sandy, “The spirits really are everywhere. Halloween without disguises and it’s giving me the goosebumps. You think they’re grateful for the summons?”
“Dunno about the grateful dead, but I hope no-one forgets to coax them back tomorrow. Fancy going to the boneyard?”
“I’m out of here first thing,” she says, resuming our intermittent argument. “These customs are quaint, I’ll give you that, but crowds and buildings bore me.”
“Well, what else do you expect of a city, Sandy?”
“I suppose I shouldn’t gripe. Three in the morning and the place is crawling with the living and the dead. But I’m soaked to the skin. Home, please, if we can find it.”
In the yard Chappie greets us whining, then bolts under the sofa since he can’t now get under my bed, anywhere away from the souls straying overhead. I carry tea upstairs to where Sandy is rolling the restorative joint.
“Everything’s messed up in your beloved Alto, Jim. That’s why you fit in so well. Take Rosa - I like her, but that household, really man.”
“Oh, that reminds me. She says, Luis should have chosen a couple. Would you consider accompanying me to the wedding?”
“Go to hell, you creep!” yells Sandy. “The way you allow things to happen is so bogus.” She grabs her sleeping-bag and escapes over the corridor to the meditation room. I lay on my mattress, listening to flutes wailing at the macabre banquets.

Chapter 25
Coping With Crap

The atmosphere's changed since that anniversary. El directorio met last week, inviting no outsiders, issuing no statements. On the top floor, the bosses are isolated and scheming, while below clusters of socios mill. It’s the national mood; sporadic roadblocks, marches in the cities, stones, teargas, broken windows, cracked skulls, the odd death.
At this moment I’m attending a joint session of the Project and Social committees, but my thoughts are on the recent batch of letters from home. Sarah reports that she’s suffering. Geordie’s living upstairs with Leo and she doesn’t have to add a comment on who brought the boy to the house. C'mon Sarah, an artist can usually convert the pain into gain.
The other correspondent is Joanne, thanking me for such an amusing series of letters. You’ve quite sold Bolivia to me, she enthuses (funny, I thought there was nothing left to ransack after the privatisations), and now, dearest son, since you’re a millionaire in local currency, send me a ticket and I’ll come over. An unsettling prospect.
Foolish to daydream on commission time. Around the grand table, attention has focused on Ana and it’s getting personal. As a staff member, however low on the salary scale, she's open to accusations of earning at the socios’ expense. Even Elvira is under attack, and the treasurer only receives a viático, daily expenses. The two are parrying inquiries about their finances.
Our committee bays for blood, victims hunting culprits when the real issue is the projects. All at once the meeting turns its jaws towards me. “How much do you pocket, Jaime?” asks a squat city-woman dressed in mourning. Oops - my diplomatic immunity blown.
“Err - I don’t receive a wage. I’m a volunteer, remember?” That touch of aggresssion at the end results from embarrassment. I’ve no desire to admit before this comisión that my thousand dollar a month allowance, not counting health insurance, housing, travel, dope-fund, etc.
She’s persistent though, a regular pitbull. “The volunteer organization obviously pays you something.”
“Yes,” (thank you Joanne for this timely inspiration), “But I’m sending the money to my mother.” Ah, what a good boy!
And little Doña Amalia, head of this Project Committee, completes the rescue. “It’s none of our concern, Doña Berta. Whatever he’s paid is entirely independent of the Copcap budget. He’s not taking it off us.”
“But the rest of the staff are,” gnashes Berta, and two dozen committee members grunt approval. They are not being greedy; all around them, money grows on trees, out of reach, no ladders provided. The tv trumpets, ‘Bolivia, economic miracle, darling of the IMF ', so why are times hard? Of course these decent men and women are angry. They've wasted a day surveying the credits that have indebted them.
I attempt to sidetrack the aggro, reminding them of the evaluation team on the way. “We have to straighten out these projects before it arrives.”
“And what do they want with us?” grumbles Berta.
“Merely to see how their money’s been spent.”
An old timer in a shiny suit raises a grizzled hand. “La palabra. For our information, could you tell us where the money comes from?” Huh, sometimes only the bluntest of questions is sufficiently acute.
A list of donors, the Swedish Ecclesiastical Council, European Union, German Fair Trading Group, doesn’t satisfy him. “No, what I’m asking is, how did these people make that money?”
Good point. Can’t imagine the churches passing a bucket round their congregations for the half-kroners - has to be from property or investments. As for the EU, cash doesn’t exist in that figure-juggling euro-wonderland; their charity is discounted against rebates to the artichoke farmers of the Dordogne. And the Germans, well, they sell hand-knitted sweaters at luxury prices to assuage their endless guilt. It’s difficult to explain the set-up but I try.
“If that’s the case,” comments Elvira entering the debate at last, “I don’t see why they require us to balance our books at all. None of them produce a thing. They should just give us the money and let us use it as we see fit.” Applause, banging on table, whistles, order sheets thrown to the air - the usual democratic decorum.
“Fair enough,” I admit, “We'll make a list of our needs.” Interesting, for when one does abandon the repayment game, what emerges is the next generation - we want nurseries, a youth club, computer services and internet training. The rural groups add legal advice, land titles are hot. And everyone demands a mobile health programme to replace the degenerate Dr. Beto.
“Entonces, de acuerdo. Agreed. Jaime will take these proposals directly to the evaluators when they arrive,” commands Elvira, “and not a word to those upstairs,” which lands me in a conflict of interests. But duplicity suits the conspirator, doesn’t it? It's training.
“One more point,” says Amalia. “The directorio have entrusred us to correct the bad atmosphere in our association. As you may know, the first step is a Mass to be conducted by Padre Ignacio later today.” Wha-a-a-t! The crazed crooner in my own backyard? “But we must also decide between a coca-reading or a millucha.”
At this last word, the members grimace. “I propose that the coca is sufficient,” says Elvira, but she’s outvoted. Leyendo la coca is soothsaying on a par with consulting the I Ching (the leaves have light and dark green sides), yet the commision has opted for the other, far heavier ceremony, even I hesitate to name it twice in one page, that serves to fix blame and invoke punishment.
The craggy old-timer is a practitioner. He’ll undertake the ritual over the weekend, but first the building must be emptied of people and cleansed. He names a ridiculously high fee that no-one dares dispute (despite the financial quibbling of the last five hours). The meeting dissolves with a shudder.
Ana, determined to counterattack after the harrassment she’s endured, intercepts me before I can reach the stairs. Within general hearing, she hisses, “You should know that your new compadre Luis is a spy.” What a wonderful day this is turning into.
An hour to prepare for the conference upstairs and decide on tactics before facing Osvaldo, but I’d require more than a lifetime to reconcile the socios' demands with his designs. Maybe I should burst into his office and ask what this farcical association is meant to achieve, but he’ll just brush me aside with talk of alleviating poverty through credit and work opportunities, the usual fossilized dung, pure Copcap copro-crap.
When we do meet, he’s closer to delirium, rambling about peasant insurgencies, the crisis at this office (you’ve had a very negative effect here, young man), and the Director's high blood pressure. That one’s true; the last glimpse I caught of Edmundo, he was looking puffy.
Not that Osvaldo's so great himself. I wonder about the tightening of skin on his skull, and whether he’s acquired that nervous tic from the wall-clocks which have all recently stopped. When an orderly man cracks, mind the gaps.
“A quarter of a million dollars hangs on the evaluators' visit,” he whispers (wouldn't do for the plebs to overhear). “I’m relying on you to convince the groups not to complain.” Might as well ask me to empty the lake with a teaspoon. “The team's a Finnish couple who don’t speak any Spanish.” Fabulous, a pair of functionally illiterate snoopers parachuting in. “If you give a good impression, perhaps we’ll pull through,” he confides, no longer deeming my influence quite so negative. Then he twitches twice.
I excuse myself to mingle in the knots of socios. They talk to me, friendly enough yet guarded, returning to Aymara amongst themselves, a language at which I’ve made no progress.
Suddenly, the ground floor has emptied. In the yard, an indignant Ignatz is berating his flock. “Christ lies bleeding because you haven’t baptized your children or sanctified the union of man and woman. You wretches don’t even come to mass on Sundays.” He’s shouting at these hardened folk around whose susceptibilities even Edmundo and Osvaldo tiptoe. And the nonsense he’s spouting in no way relates to their problems.
Bossy, bullying Ignatz, taking advantage of the people’s deep spirituality. Fondling his guitar the way I’d treasure that first cigarette of the day, he begins the ritual. Illogically, they respond with respect, almost affection, chanting the responses.
I can guess why. According to Elvira, 20 years ago, this man stood against the dictator Garcia Meza’s police force. The Alto was desolate plain then. First settlers had built rude adobe walls, single rooms, no electricity or water. In all that emptiness, the police were instructed to snatch the land for their own families. And those days, challenging authority was tantamount to a single ticket to the torture cells.
“If you arrest them, you take me too,” Ignatz had said, so the police did. The next day he brought the settlers home, triumphant. He was a righter of wrongs then, now reduced to peddling mass, baptism and marriage - form without content.
Well, James. This is an opportunity to negotiate over those damned courses. If you can get dispensation from the man himself ................
“Excuse me, padre, I need to talk to you.”
“Yes, my son,” he archly responds, stamping hierarchy on our coversation.
“I’m going to be a padrino de matrimonio and these courses...........”
“Are absolutely necessary to comprehend the significance of holy matrimony.”
“I have studied religions, padre."
“But have you ever studied the truth?” Ever the Christian, he’s nailed me. I can’t recall encountering much truth.
“Come to the church on Friday night to prepare yourself.” Unnecessary, thanks, I’m an adept at blundering blind into situations. But the steel frames of his eyeglasses glint with a cold, merciless light. Divining some hesitation, he joins today’s queue to influence Jaime, switching to English for greater intimacy.
“Violence is coming and violence is wrong. I vant you to calm zese radical elements.” Since I don’t react, he perseveres. “Christ lived for love.”
“And died,” I reply.
“And vas riborn,” he counters.
“Yeah, padre, big changes do happen. Sometimes, they’re very necessary. Join us” I’ve trumped him, so he reverts to manic street blackmailer.
“You vill kum Friday or zat couple vill not be marry.”

His smug authority-trip rubs me the wrong way. I can’t head home; without Sandy, the place is unbearable. Furious at myself, furious at the priest, I storm along the main avenue like a contortionist on speed, anguishing over the skills I’m going to need to balance all these conflicting claims.
Hunk, honk. Hunk, honk. The asthmatic horn fails at first to engage my attention. “Oye, Jaime! Anyone home?” Dr. Beto waves from what might be an ancient taxi, except that he’s driving, erratically it has to be said. “Over here,” signals Vanesa from the passenger seat. “Come for a ride,” she says. “We’re going out to eat.”
They take me to a dingy restaurant near the Ceja that specializes in plates of sheep’s head and rice. The pair spoon out brains enthusiastically, urge an eyeball or two on me. Doc won't spoil the feast by discussing work. “Fine, fine, couldn’t be better.”
He’s unaware of Vanesa playing footsie under the narrow table. She's massaging my calf. By the time the poor sheep has been truly picked over and sucked clean, the crotch of her snug jeans is tight against my knee. What am I supposed to do - withdraw, shame her? She’d denounce me for harrassment. Our eyes meet. Shit, another invitation to a sexual encounter when what I really need is a relationship. Sandy’s gonna murder me.
Why don't they just stick an ad in the paper?
‘Organ grinder seeks monkey.’

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Chapters 18-21

The summer is seriously here. I have now heard from a reader!! This raises our known readership from zero to one, and for a mathematician, that's a huge factor! (You work it out)In the words of the Duke: Yess! Or some thing in a similar vein... Besos.

OOPs. This one went missing. I started it over a month ago and then left it, for some reason I've since forgotten. bummer.

Chapter 18
A Niche for Zarathustra

They owe me a holiday, conveniently enough for Edmundo, since the next directorio meeting’s due soon. I’ve done the Lake on a visa-run to Peru (receiving a 90-day extension, thank you) and found it hard to unwind there. My practised volunteer eye spent the time sizing up all those crops and projects. Maybe I should try a minor city in the interior of country (yawn, yawn). Perhaps not.
It’s Julio who recommends the Yungas. Sounds neat; eastern slopes of the Andes, natural habitat of the coca plant, tropical valleys (semi-tropical correct Julio). And he wants to accompany me but I refuse, needing fresh wind and, anyhow, I couldn’t trust myself on the loose with such a likely lad.
He wraps his disappointment in a gift, a cheapo booklet of the life and deeds of Che. “Then take this with you - para paracticar tu español.” I accept, but that’s only half the head-food I’m going to need.
Communication with the Israelis is never easy. You ring the bell to their apartment, and the reply comes distorted through the grille by the door. They’re home, but don’t remember who I am or maybe they’re immersed in some private hyseria. Dammit, I can’t travel without a smoke - I can’t, I won’t. So, I’ll camp on the steps and wait till one of them descends. Calmly now, no hurry - I haven’t bought a ticket for the Coroico bus yet.
Che’s saga immediately, completely immerses me, opening itself at page 59 from which the word ‘Yungas’ leaps out. I read how the original plan was to launch Che’s campaign in the Yungas because of its proximity to the mining centres (as the crow flies, as guerillas trek). The sticky, stifling tropical climate would bring on his attacks of asthma, but jungle’s good cover and miners nearby radical and brave.
However, the Bolivian Communist Party, jealous of a foreigner leading the struggle, shunts Che down to the arid, depopulated south-east of the country, where no popular movement as ever taken root, hoping that he’ll simply disappear over the border into his native Argentina.
At chapter-end, Yod appears. “Hey, British, so early you’re spying on us?” Early for whom? It’s eleven o’clock and I’ve already endured Asunta’s farewell breakfast, ridden a springless bus to the Ceja, kicked the shins of a teenager trying to steal my backpack, been whirled down the motorway by a driver younger than the thief and I have survived. Mine was the dawn patrol, Yod.
I’m entitled to complain. He’s just torn yourself from Tzipi’s embrace, lucky sod, and now he’s slammed the front door without bothering to let me into the hallway. “Ring the bell,” he snipes over his shoulder. I’ve tried that. “Use the signal, dumbo,” he snipes over his shoulder. “Two short, one long, one short.” Right!
Upstairs, Carlo the Cuban is rolling the first number of their day over the debris of a week-long party. He reminds me of a lizard - bulging, bloodshot eyes, leathery neck, stomach sag. Tzipi’s a snake coiled on the stained orange sofa; she’s stretching for her coffee in a fluid movement overlaid with intention – of making me gape. I comply.
Included in the price of an ounce is this advice:
“When you pass the checkpoint, stick the grass down your pants. Should be plenty of room down there, I guess,” jibes Carlo, “and even the police-dogs won’t smell it.” Behind her coffee-mug, Tzipi smirks.
Handing me the lit joint, he announces, “Yod and me, we’re going on a trip for a month. You should come over and keep Tzipi company - stay the night - hell, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Sure, here’s my telephone number,” Tzipi adds, an invitation, a challenge, pure Mae West, tempting me with the prospect of some good, clean, unhealthy fun.

At the Villa Fatima gas-station, I have to choose the variety of public transport in which to brave the so-called the Road of Death to las Yungas. A city minibus, perhaps, nifty and swift, light enough to be blown off. Or the lumbering bus that’ll grip well but has no room to manoeuver. I settle for the bus, already crammed with locals and their loads.
Though I’ve bought a numbered ticket, the bus company has jumbled the seating and overbooked too. I prefer to sit on my rucksack than bother that family of eight squeezed along the last row. “Come and park yourself here, pal,” cries an Aussie voice. So I lurch over and stumble on Sandy and her pals.
Within half an hour we’ve left the flanks of the canyon and are venturing up-mountain. The way to the Yungas lies beyond la Cumbre, the high pass over the Andes. Then we’ll drop into jungle - like a condor, not a stone, I trust. The route cuts beneath a snow-topped peak, white on black. Even at this chilly height, labourers are hacking at peat whilst their dogs sit by the road, patiently begging for bread.
Carlo’s advice was just another tease. At the military roadblock, a few kilometres into the descent, only the vendors hassle us, poking stale sweet-bread through the windows.
This narrow road is awesomely perilous. Drops of 500 metres in places, Julio has warned. Laden trucks pant uphill, piled high with mahogany, scraping the bus against the mountainside or nudging us towards the precipice. Closing my eyes won’t help; I visualise myself on a tightrope over Niagara, wobbling towards me an elephant on a bike. Tranquilo, danger spices the journey – could say it gives the road an edge.
Sandy, bio-enviro-eco-anthro graduate, comforts and comments:
“Wow! The vegetation’s changing so fast. Amazing, you see how we’re zipping down hrough the ecological layers, Jim?” Through mists of fear, I do - first a fern sprouts clear of the rock, then bushes, white plumes, yellow flowers, tropical trees. It is truly sudden, but not reassuring. Amid the greenery, metal crosses record fatal accidents.
The Aussies are unfazed. This is a minor league compared to canyoning rivers in spate or ski-ing glaciers. And it’s getting warm at last. In front of the gawping adults and kids, they strip to shorts and skimpy t-shirts. I sweat, hiding my untanned arms in protective clothing, still swaddled against a chill that we discarded a thousand meters up.
“What are those strange crackling noises coming from your crotch,” enquires Sandy. I explain, she hoots but her eyes widen at the prospect of good grass. Hey, chatting with Sandy loosens the thongs that have bound me over these months. By the time the hillcrest town of Coroico sneaks into view below the last coils of this intimidating road, I have a friend.
Dumped in the plaza, the Aussies consult their bible, the ‘Only Plan It’ guide which caters to the restless and footsore of this only planet, averting all risk of fleapits or boredom. The good book points the way. “Recommends a place up above town, pools and chalets says Lex. “Can’t be bad,”.
Spot on – the complex is atmospheric, beautiful. The travellers scatter to their cabins, dormitories or tents, swim, shower, sort essentials from neat rucksacks. Clothes are washed and darned. Shit, I’ve forgotten towel and toothbrush, so hitchhiking round the galaxy’s out for me tonight.
They’ll accept my company without the bag of grass, (didn’t Lex invite me over on the bus?) but distributing the goodies does guarantee massive, instant popularity. To a soundtrack of guitars and flutes (twang/warble) and the whirring of frisbees, a joint rolling commission labours. Soon it’s trancetime, until the next rush, scheduled for tomorrow, definitely. Half a day’s hike away, there’s a waterfall and its tricky swimming-hole, rated ‘an experience’ by the book
Our holy smoke attracts other travellers camped within our orbit. Maestros of strenuous fun, they’ve all courted disaster up and down the Andes, and have tales to swap.
Eventually Lex asks, “So, Jim. Yerself? What’cha bin doing?”
“Well, I haven’t been anywhere to speak of, really. I’m working on a project in the Alto of La Paz,” is met by silence and disinterest, meriting a notorious loss of cool. This man hasn’t even trekked the Macchu Picchu trail. That book on Che he’s reading, it’s in Spanish. Hell, he’s going native! Surprised he didn’t pack his briefcase and an umbrella.
But, later that evening, in the fragant flower-garden under a sliced moon, Sandy hears my stories. And if I jabber like Old Fred, the marooned captain of the yellow submarine, she forgives me and listens.
“Whatever’s going on up there, it ain’t healthy or real.”
“The Alto’s challenging. I feel at home.”
“Illusion, mate. They’ve got you typecast, they’ve got you acting to the gallery. In my books, freedom is about not defining yourself, never. I just wonder who’s pulling your strings?” Around us, toads and crickets rehearse their unfinished symphonies.
“As for those pals of yours, Sarah and Geordie, well, you shouldn’t treat friends that way.” Moths meander by. “And that Israeli girl’s going to eat you up whole, ain’t she? Won’t even bother to spit out the pips. And you’ll enjoy that, of course.” Sandy dispensing wisdom, but she doesn’t play games as she fans the night-fliers from her bare thighs.
“And don’t get ideas, ‘cos a scene between us is the last thing we need and, anyway, I’ll bet you forgot to bring condoms.” Fine, let’s not ruffle the still water, for tomorrow is clear with promise.
“Someone told me about a magic we could climb - Uchumachi’s the name,” she continues. “The others can head for the waterfall. I don’t wanna lose a moment of you, Jim, you’re very special. Now get to bed - on your own, pal.”

Such a relief to leave the high plain behind. The flat and the linear are banished from these valleys and the stark sun of La Paz here becomes become an emperor of steam In the tropics (semi-tropics, whatever) the very texture of the air swells. Good company makes a difference too, not having to measure each word. Sure, relax.
The steep walk has us sweating next morning,. Arriving where the giant golden bees pulse, we enter a realm of glamour and weirding, I can sense it from the touch of gravity in the stomach, like we’re tripping. A stretch of briar, then, after a vertical face of overwhelming green, a smoke-darkened altars below the summit.
Sandy fixes on the grey, fallen tree as the joint-rolling site, I spot the orchids on its trunk. Splindly trees drip in the filtered light. This is the magic kingdom, cloud-forest curling along the ridge of the hill, a dragon at rest No-one will disturb us. The locals leave their offerings on the blackened, stone altars at the entrance to the forest, unwilling to penetrate further. Far below us, with its plazas, pizza parlours and palms, Coroico plays the tourist town.
Respecting the stillness of the witchy wood, we whisper.

“You’ve noticed?” she breathes out, facing me in the spongy darkness.
“Yes, it’s strange,” though I can’t fathom why.
“Where are the animals?” Right; there aren’t any birds, spiders, not even insects.
“But the place is alive, isn’t it?”
“On a microbial level, yes. Fascinating,” Sandy replies and wraps herself about me in one vast Australian embrace. Faintly, so faintly at first as to be imaginary, a hum shifts to a drone, emerges buzzing, the only sound in the universe. A solitary yellow bumblebee, pumping hard, is clumsily negotiating the trees.
“In my awful job I feel like that bee,” I groan.
“Cut that self-pity,” sandy rebukes, yet she laughs and plants an almost chaste kiss to soothe the pain.
One last sight of life’s vibrant colours before plunging into the tangle. Uchumachi stretches along the horizon, sinister and latent. “The sub-conscious,” she says. “Like it or not, we have to enter.”
Inside, the tracks dip in dark neural pathways, leading to occasional clearings where sunlight holds court and midges dance the gavotte. But beyond these little centres of enlightenment, we’re confined to the paths, and then channeled into a single artery, mysteriously preserved among the riotous growth. If we stray, wild forces snare our ankles, lash our faces.
On and on we press, through dank filtered tunnels, silent shadow, by trees, vine and bush, mini-dells and dingles. Sandy vaults obstacles, I clamber under or over. The hollow ground shakes beneath us when we land.
“This is very sacred. You feel the forest is an entity?” Yes, its presence propels us along the implacable path, and we’re too stoned-stupid to realise that midday has gloomed and thunder claps above. When we try to retrace our steps, the single track has turned multiple and labyrithine.
“Don’t leave the path,” I cry but she’s gone. I succumb to shirt-shredding panic and flight, finally locating her by the altars, where she’s dancing beneath the curtains of rain, her oval face gleaming in the downpour. “Truly terrible,” I mouth, my numb lips chattering. “Idiot, we are impermeable. The waterfall has come to us.” And she pulls me sliding down and away from Uchumachi’s grip.
Two hours later, we’re drinking coffee when her mates arrive in great, high humour. The waters of the swimming-hole rose suddenly and nearly washed everyone downriver - another ultimate experience. Over the final joint, Lex makes this offer:
“Come and travel with us, Jimmy.”
“Well, you’re a fine bunch of people, but I’m involved in ...........”
Sandy opens her ‘Only Plan It’ at some juicy options. Wanna swim with the blind river-dolphins in the Beni, follow the dinosaur tracks from the ruins of Butch Cassidy’s ranch? Toss that guide over here, Sandy, let’s see what it says about El Alto.
Quote/unquote: ‘grey, littered and poverty-plagued sprawl ..... on muddy streets that seem to have escaped attention since Inca times. Unkempt children play in expanding potholes, Indian women pound laundry in a sewage-choked stream.......ugliness and poverty.’
Hey! That happens to be where I live and work. Any thoughts of following the Aussies dissolve. “Listen, Sandy. You want adventure, then visit the Alto with me.”

Sandy loathes the place, but her stay has the admirable side-effect of tempting Asunta to broadcast false news. Though she knows that Sandy sleeps alone in the spare room upsatirs (Asunta invents errand to check), for her the telenovela has turned alarmingly real. Jaime’s girlfriend is in town and they’re sinning freely. Thanks – by wrecking my moral reputation you’ve released me from Doña Rosa’s hold.
Sandy claims she’d go mad living up here.
“It’s the lack of vegetation, Jim. How can you stand it?” she laments, gazing through the window at the bisected mountain caught between the wedge of walls.
“You’re missing the point, Sandy. Because the Alto doesn’t fit your defininition of entertainment, it seems lifeless. Think in terms of Uchumachi - we’re operating on a purely organic social level here.”
“No, this place is terminally weird, ” she insists or perhaps she means startlingly normal, which frightens her more. Whatever, for better or for worse, I have found my ecological niche, rather like those bacteria that thrive in volcanic vents miles below the sea, unaware of how odd they are.

Chapter 19
Into The Eyebrow of the Storm

Doña Teofila leads our delegation to the protest march. The women depart on foot, bearing babies and placards and a woven shield of dark maroon, embroidered in intricate, yellow lettering, ‘Copcap (fundada 1992)’. We should catch them all later at the Ceja.
Staff are supposed to work, 24-hour national stoppage or not. The three of us labour doggedly in the tiny offices, Elvira and Ana poring over papers, while I pour scorn on the recruiting agency by means of my long-delayed quarterly report. I’ve enough survival sense to mute most misgivings, suspecting that Copcap was especially selected by my sponsors for its lavish failings. But this first report, although doctored, isn’t a work of fiction. Lumps of substance circle the flakey bits – my achievements; a third greenhouse, the planned literacy campaign, there’s even hope for the questionnaire.
From one cubicle I hear a typewriter clunking (Elvira’s dinosaur), from the other the trill of a cell-phone (Ana’s pride). These radical women are separated by more than plywood partitions. Status fuels their tension. Ana has a university degree and a salaried post within this organization, Elvira was a teacher, is treasurer now, works on a committee for a pittance.
Or, the problem could be a political. Choque ranges in meaning - bump, shock, a car crash, clash. Whatever, the surname Choque suits Ana well. Whereas Elvira is an organizer who believes in solidarity.
Our boss has phoned in absent, won’t even attempt to risk his flashy car at the road-blocks, is probably playing tennis with Pamela in the sunny south. But Oswaldo, living with his widowed mother in nearby Satellite City, has dutifully tramped to work. He now stands guard on the stairs. We, the drones, work exactly one hour, then down pens and descend, excuses ready. Ana claims an interview at a radio station, Elvira urgent bank business, I’m shopping for educational material.
“You do realize there’s no transport?”
“Your concern is touching, Oswaldo, but we can walk.”
And we exit, giggling like schoolkids, from a ground floor that vibrates oddly in the unaccustomed stillness. Ana’s conferring urgently on her phone. “The comrades are gathering,” she announces. Is she chummier because Sandy’s visit cleared the air or did Pancho’s summons raise me to the ranks of the elect?
Flagging a last bus. “I’ll take you as far as the first barricade and that’s all. I ain’t risking no smashed windscreen,” the driver grumbles.”
“You shouldn’t be on the road at all, compañero,” Ana counters which is rather cheeky, having it both ways, making the political point, then taking a ride to the Oruro road, a mile from the Ceja.
But today the pedestrians do own the streets. And the buildings, to their detriment, become more obtrusive the closer we approach the Ceja. Ah, Alto architecture; those gormless, yawning office-blocks, as elegant as sumo wrestlers on stilts. Concentrate on the march, Jim.
“So, what’s the aim of today’s protest?” Why do I ask? It’s the usual: “damned government...... privatizations......... protest loss of health care......... the family budget ........... our union leaders persecuted.”
These are complaints, not objectives.
“Aha, so you agree with me, Jaime,” shouts Ana. “We should be blocking the road down to la zona sur, allá donde viven los peces gordos,” that’s where the fat fish live. “What’s the point of paralysing the motorway? We’re just prejudicing our own people. The enemy enjoys its riches in the southern suburbs.”
“No, compañera,” Elvira replies, “Our strength comes from a show of unity. Look at the ranks of working folk.” She proudly points to the columns massed ahead.
“We are sitting targets,” Ana replies, prophetically in the event.
I stare at the defenceless women with their bundles and laughter, the men clutching sticks and bravado. They do rather give the impression of an picnic excursion. But it’s too late to doubt; we’re nearing the Ceja itself, the centre on the edge.
I suppose The main route descending from the altiplano into La Paz has always been guarded by rapacious, unfriendly merchants. I hate the Ceja, its ugliness, the cramped, narrow, filthy streets, medieval in stench. Entertainment is whisky-bars and under-age prostitutes. You’d search in vain for cinemas, theatres or sports facilities. The stores sell bagged cement, hormonal chicken by the truckload, shoes, drink, paint and more drink. The Ceja makes the Alto defiled and defaced, inorganic and, needless to say, every doorway disgorges those cumbia songs.
This one now: “Tu tienes la culpa que sea así” - it’s your fault how it’s turned out, the singer evading the issue so completely while, against our will, we hum along - to be rescued Suddenly by chanting and rockets. Those little Brazilian rockets, fired at arm’s length, whoosh, bang, bang, bang. We’re mobilised, united, on the edge ready to storm the city. Comradeship, comrades, courage.
Ah, the edge blows me away, blows me totally away. Those mountains ranged, the view never fails. Splendidly alone on the right, Mt. Illimani, 3-pronged perfection. Along a bit, the companion that according to legend lost its head in jealousy - yes, it is lopped. A gap and to the left, the twins; the one against which all trainee climbers test themselves and then the highest ski-run in the world until global warming melted the glacier, still has the highest restaurant the Guinness book claims.
“This is where Tupac Katari stood,” Elvira enthuses.
Never heard of him, I don’t confess.
“The greatest indigenous uprising in South American history. From this spot, he laid seige to La Paz for months and almost...”
The megaphone breaks her thread. “Link arms - spread out - make yourselves heard.”
“Tirano escucha. Aquí esta la lucha.”
Five women lead the march clasping one long, red banner which blocks all the down-lanes of the autopista. Printed on the banner, “El Alto reclama” - reclaims its rights. The little coronel’s highway, product of kickbacks and false accounting is crumbling, falling to pieces like the national economy. And now occupied by the teachers, neighbourhood associations, market-ladies, pensioners, railways workers, students, dispossessed miners, and our Copcap delegation, each group with its insignia, pride and history. The Alto protests, from babes to the elderly.
Señoras in layered stiff skirts whirl and chant as if dancing, but don’t be fooled by a carnival tone. The first stranded motorist to misjudge the mood will contemplate the fragments of his windscreen. We’re marching down to the city. La Paz lies at our feet, a cubist daub, slapdash against the dun-coloured crater.
Observing Elvira and Ana organize. Similar in physique, and yet so different in style. The former moulds comrades around her solid bulk, orchestrating by megaphone. Ana, low centre of gravity, everywhere and nowhere, wheedles, needles the crowd.
We’re roaring in unison, “Cuidado - el pueblo esta enojado” - careful, the people are enraged.
Kings of the road, the authentic voice of el pueblo, this is one glorious parade until, a kilometre down, we round a wide curve and see the battle line of riot-police glowering behind plastic shields, visors and helmets. They have batons drawn, gas grenades primed.
Ana opens a bottle of mineral water, soaks her handkerchief, tying it over her nose and mouth, brigand fashion. “Contra el gas - do the same!” and then she vanishes. Unease ripples through rank and file. Elvira steers the long column down to the parallel Old Road, a creditable attempt to rescue us from the assault. But in the manoeuvre we lose cohesion and, fatally, turn our backs on the mad dogs.
The first tear-gas shell strikes howling and the techno-bullies advance. Officers excepted, they are as dark-skinned and Andean-featured as the fleeing crowd, but training has stripped them of humanity. Within moments, men and women stretch on the ground, hands futilely raised against the batons or clutching their skulls. Children wander lost in the gas, the blood and the panic.
Those who can escape are scampering down the incline, melting into the warren of alleyways leading towards the General Cemetery. At the grip on my shoulder, I almost hit out. It’s Ana, masked and insistent, urging me back up to the motorway. We circle behind and above the troops to where a knot of our folk have regrouped and are collecting fist-sized stones. Yes, with rock to hand, I do feel a little boulder.
Our initial counterattack surprises, even hurts, but when the beast turns its jaws on us, we are pursued hard and have to escape into the townships above the motorway.
Panting (that Astoria habit), I collapse against a rough adobe wall, whip the handkerchief off to let in air and only then notice the photographer in the distance directing his zoom-lens my way. He hasn’t bothered to remove his dark glasses.

Chapter 20
Roped In

Monday. Take special care when the boss alters both appearance and attitude. Edmundo has shaved his stubble, swapped his suit for a coarse brown cardigan, is proferring lukewarm coffee and faint praise. The charm offensive, his offensive charm.
“Your performance is improving, Jaime,” he says, and strokes the newly-revealed double-chin. “You’re getting the picture at last. We’re quite pleased.” The royal plural must include Pamela and the gadgetry on his desk. No-one else is making positive comments my way these days.
Several phones ring, a fly crawls over the LSE certificate which causes me to wonder why Edmundo contacted the agency during his summer course in London. Send me a fool, he probably said.
“It’s convenient you’re more settled, because we have a little job for you. The anniversary of the Association is coming up soon. I’d like you to take on the role of coordinador.” That’s the very word he uses, ‘coordinator’. I thought I already was.
When? - this Saturday - short notice - you can manage – entailing? - a few sporting and cultural events, not very much work, Faustino will explain - funds? - sufficient, just ensure the day runs smoothly. Dismissed.
Bolivians are tremendously keen on anniversaries, any day will do. Dia postal and the post office shuts, dia del dentista no tooth may be filled for love or money. I’ve just suffered international friendship day, a flower and a card, and the rest of the year to get through. Whatever next, dia del torturador, toasting the victim’s remains?
This last minute scramble is so typical. There’s no-one to consult, certainly not Faustino, I’ve already searched the building for him. Retire to plywood cell, to doodling among the paperwork and fantasies of Tzipi.

Tuesday: Ana and Elvira refuse to help. Nothing malicious, they’re busy, as in wanting to see how I cope. You could say that I respond well in the circumstances, eventually forming a capable team. Closer to the truth is that Lidia, my supervisor, takes pity, takes over.
“First,” she instructs tearing a sheet from a school exercisebook, “we’ll programme the dances.”
“Who’s dancing?” Everyone, it seems, all the groups, directorio too, in elaborate costumes.
“There’s a trophy. And if you don’t know the difference between tinku and morenada steps, you have a week to learn how, Jaime.” Her vast form shakes with amusement. “Julio, come over here,” she commands. “What sports would you recommend, apart from football?” The list grows; a bicycle race, women’s soccer, the eating contests, a must in this land of background hunger.
“Anything else, Jaime?” From memories of fête days in the local park, I dredge sack-races, 3-legged races, egg-‘n-spoon races, good Lancashire fun. It’s the proustian armlock, damn him, hard to break loose. My suggestions are enthusically adopted.
Her friend, Doña Lidia, tiny and dynamic, hops downstairs with a shopping list approved by the Treasurer. We have lift-off. Miguel completes the team. Long ago dislodged from the complaints desk (Osvaldo has had it removed or burned), he’s insinuated himself into the daily routine as office messenger and tea-bearer. Slight, hunched, a talented listener, he likes working.
Amalia hands him the key to the workshop outside.
“Clear it, top to bottom and as the purchases arrive, pile them ready for Saturday. Except the cake. You’d better take that upstairs or the mice’ll eat it.”
What else to do? Edmundo already sent invitations last month to local dignitaries, political friends and tv channels. “El licensiado always gets channels 7 and 13 to cover the anniversary,” says Amalia. Not entirely thrilling; state-run 7, when not beaming propaganda, transmits Taiwanese documentaries on rice cultivation. 13, the university channel, re-runs Pink Floyd concerts.
Some of the directorio wander in. Julio and I push the big table to one side to allow for rehearsals. Bring a tape-recorder, Jaime. 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2. Can I join in? Sorry, members only. But you told me ........ They’re going for the big one, up for the Cup.
And headman Faustino, where’s he lurking?
“Oh, don’t you know,” says Julio. “The event’s in his community, Kotapata, so he’ll be busy.” Yes, this I can picture; Faustino obliging schoolkids to swab down the prize bull’s stable before they start raking the football pitch. Meanwhile he’s allocating the beer franchises for the great day.

Wednesday. They’ve hatched this between them. Osvaldo summons me, early morning, just as I’m adding final items to the shopping list. His office is sparse, in keeping with its occupant, though he shares the top floor and some of Pamela’s official services. The man is austere.
From here, Osvaldo tries to impose discipline on the organization. Over the desk hangs a clock, black face, gold hands, unreadable. To his left, a calendar with dates circled. That sets the tone. Accordingly, there are many clocks throughout the building, none of them agreeing on the hour, and calendars in every room to mark missed deadlines. Osvaldo tries.
“I’m sorry, but you’re aware that I haven’t a moment this week,” I reply. Usefully employed, for once.
Osvaldo, at his least obnoxious, cracks thin fingers. “Well, I really was relying on you to flesh out these projects before I send them away. Just come up with ideas for some activities. You’re good at that.” He hands me a folder, but a glance is enough to know that he’s handing me trash re-hashed - business training, micro-credit, an environmental health project tagged on for show.
“It’s a question of priorities,” he snarls, yielding to character. “We can’t all afford to waste time fooling around.” Sounds of clumping dance-steps and laughter drift in. “There’s an evaluator coming next month.” Cuckoo, responds the black and gold clock, cuckoo.
When it’s clear that I’m not playing, he shifts tack. Orders from Edmundo, then - make a display chart for the anniversary, one that explains how Copcap is organized.
Hey, I know the plan behind this game. Give the boy enough rope and he’ll tie himself in knots.

Thursday. Bunch of boys jumping into the car, off to town, whooping and hollering. Julio, Miguel and I, the testosterone kids. Luis, obliged to ferry us today, drives tight-lipped downtown.
First stop, la Garita de Lima, hub of the old city, where among piled pig carcasses and quartered lambs, the dance-outfitters hide. Tiptoeing through a mean alleyway, we discover a workshop of dazzling colour where we rent vests of orange and blue; from the next, ostrich-plumed helmets; in a third, rough cotton pants, coca-pouches and silver coins. Just a beginning.
We carry the packets to the car, piling them carefully on the backseat. The sequins flash, the threads glitter like butterfly wings. These streets may be filthy and the endless traffic noxious, but we have captured the sun.
The open rear of the pickup is soon stacked with trophies, 5-litre tins of cane alcohol for the mob (brandy and rum for the guests), potatoes, tomatoes, flowers, eggs. Our gang spends the morning running in and out of markets, hauling sacks, sweating. Knee-deep in produce, Miguel stands guard over the purchases, watching for thieves, paying off the traffic cops.
“And where’s the beer?” I ask as we finally set off home..
“It’ll explode on this road,” says Luis.
Sure enough, up from la Garita the Old Road is cracked and pot-holed. Not that we ever build up speed. Between trucks and buses and minis and taxis and bikes and pedestrians, our progress is limited. In half an hour we’re at the cemetery walls, a ten-minute walk. Luis could have chosen a less congested route of the many that climb the flanks of the canyon.
I’m not moaning. In a move that thrills as it surprises, Julio has decided to share the backseat with me, though the front is empty (Miguel’s still on duty behind). The costumes take most of the space, so Julio presses his shoulder, hip, thigh against mine and drapes his arm around my shoulder. The slow bumpy ride does the rest.
I’m speechless, ecstatic, hardly notice Luis turning and saying, “Me and my señora would like to visit you one night soon. What evenings are you at home?”
Julio gives me a ‘you’ll-be-sorry’ look without explaining why. I drape my arm over his shoulder.

Friday. Tension, confusion, a buzz. Since early morning, the ground floor is choked with socios, some collecting their dance gear, others checking transport details, all demanding cash from a harrassed Elvira.
To compensate for his previous absence, Faustino is needlessly bossing and bustling. Urgent little conferences spill into the yard. I’m scratching my head over a roll of thick paper that should become the display chart.
“What Edmundo wants,” states Julio, “is an organigrama. Something that illustrates the decision-making flow within the association.”
“But all decisions comes from him and Osvaldo.”
“No they don’t. Look.” When he gets assertive, Julio combs fingers through his lengthening hair (is he growing it for me?). “First there’s the constitution which can only be altered by an assemblea annual of all the groups - here - from which the directorio derives authority - so - and then advises the various personnel how to................”
I don’t believe a word of this, Julio, my almost-more-than friend, but stay right where you are. I’ll bring a selection of pens and you can sketch the imaginary framework while I tend to other matters.
Then the cake arrives to applause and admiration. A huge cake decorated like an Ignatz cathedral, with ribbons sticking out. I can’t imagine what role they play and no-one’s informing me. I’m tempted to pull a sky-blue one, after all, I am a bolivarista. Wait, they say and wink.
So as not to be downstairs, Ana is hogging the computer upstairs. Excuse me, I have to produce a programme for the great day. Here’s Faustino’s draft - national anthem, speech of welcome, list in alphabetical order of dancing groups, Atipiris to Yanapiris. Ana won’t budge. Top management awash with hardware. Mid-level, this one terminal between seven employees - logjams and tantrums (or is that tantra?).
Blackboard and chalk on the ground floor, which Faustino is using to assign camping grounds to the various groups. In one corner, Amalia and Alberto practise dance routines while Doña Lidia, the African in her stirred by the rhythms, calls the changes. I wander over to see how the flow-chart’s rolling.
Julio has filled four sheets with multi-coloured circles, arrows and asterisks. Now what? Maskmaker Alberto is also a carpenter. Within the hour we have a framed panel to enshrine the portrait of our beloved, democratic Copcap.
As if to underline its patent absurdity, Edmundo appears and is mobbed by well-wishers. A kind word here, an observation there. He has them eating out of his hand.
He even offers me a piece of intrusive advice while admiring Julio’s nonsensical organigrama. “You’ve done very well with the preparations.” I haven’t done shit. “But tomorrow, if you could just wear some smarter clothes.”
Dress code.
“And see if you can find some trousers that do up properly.”
Zip code.
Edmundo continues the round of inspection, re-asserting his control of the proceedings.

Chapter 21

The Copcap carpark, which usually caters to the odd vehicle, today has grown into a bus depot.. Tyres are being checked, crates of beer stowed, supplies hoisted to the roof-racks, latecomers chivvied aboard. The flotilla blocks adjoining streets.
Osvaldo receives the second-best VIPs, those who for the sake of authenticity are willing to brave the Alto and join the caravan to Kotapata. A grizzled American, a French couple swathed in Gaulloise, a Canadian academic, are shepherded to the Toyota. Hey, what about me or don’t I rate as a fit companion? Luis accelerates through a gap and away.
Time to regret my good deed, dragging Asunta out of the house on this fine day. How long since you’ve seen the Lake, dear? - which lake? - Titicaca - well, I suppose when I was little, pero no sé, today’s a bit special, no sé. Don’t think I should come.
Listen Asunta, I’m also allowed guests. But my housekeeper has read the signs better. “Come on, Jaime, plenty of room,” the passengers shout from the window, only for the bus to fill mysteriously when they notice my companion. Of course, she is a bit ragged, but this snobbery of the dispossessed comes as a shock. I’ve assumed Asunta is part of the Copcap set-up, clearly not. But, I’ll sit in the yard all day rather than abandon her.
.So bless Miguel for inserting us into the Inti Wara bus with the Sun-Star group, stalwards of the Alto. He introduces me to his mum, sisters and aunts, who graciously motion us to be seated. Where? In the vintage black and yellow colectivo (1950s?), it’s already armpit to nostril. The windows flap from wires and had I space to bend my neck, I’d surely see the road through the floorboards. Could be an obstacle course ahead, fair warning.
No-one seems that concerned about time. First, we must comb the byways of the Alto for missing companions. Our driver doesn’t complain; he does what he’s told, he’s family. The group improvises lusty choruses. ‘Cuidado, cuidado, here comes Inti Wara. With our knitting needles and our dancing shoes, Inti Wara, Inti Wara!’
Even the burst tyre can’t dampen their enthusiasm much The spare’s on the roof, of course, jammed under a ton of gear. Fine, I’ll climb up and help the driver try to prise it out. Jesus, what have they brought for this day-outing? Excuse me señoras, are you sure that packing the costumes between the food and petrol-cans is the best way to have them arrive safely? Alright, I will mind my own business. We abandon bus to lessen the strain on the rusty jack.
A hundred accidents waiting to happen. The bus parked at an angle in traffic that refuses to slow, our kids wandering close to the road, the driver crouched under the perilous jack. And the tyre is just a prelude; a few kilometres further on, the axle snaps, by when the women are worrying. Nuestro mal destino, they claim; poor maintenance I’d guess.
All the gear is downloaded into a fantastic pyramid. The united will of thirty dancers forces an empty beer truck to a halt – there’s still hope for a triumphal entry into Kotapata. But that’s without reckoning on the cussedness of officialdom. At the Huarina checkpoint, we’re hit by transit regulations, real and imaginary, and the whip-round for a bribe, a handful of small change and crumpled notes, is so derisory the bastards just laugh.
These women may believe in destiny, but they’re aware that when fate serves up one slight chance, their duty is to grab it. The Channel 13 crew have stopped by the tollbooth for a snack and a leak. One of the ladies goes over: ‘Un favor, hermanos,’ wink, ‘when we give the sign, start filming.’ Inti Wara makes a scene: ‘Abusivos, ladrones, corruptos,’ and before you can say ‘candid camera’, we’re waved through.
The truckdriver can’t be convinced or coerced to take us further than the turn-off, so we borrow a wheelbarrow, which barely reduces the load. Miguel and I lug two crates of beer and a sharp-angled sack between us. Yet, ploughing along the mud track, the ladies are back in singing mood. Asunta hobbles alongside, crying with what I trust is joy.
Why not? A breeze is carrying the titillatory thump of brass bands and the crackle of a loudspeaker. Rockets burst. Once at the brow of the hill, we can distinguish forms, vehicles, colour, movement, the whole scene dominated by the sparkling lake. On the horizon, a tiny, emphatic Mt. Illimani, thimbleful of dense matter weightier than a galaxy.
We are late, however. Don Faustino’s reedy whine is announcing the bicycle race. Assembled guests sit by the master of ceremonies, swaddled in floral wreaths and drowned in confetti. Behind them, a backcloth of purple awayos stitched together and enhanced with small silver items - pins, pendants, brooches and, bizarrely, blonde barbie dolls dressed in ponchos.
The women’s race comprises one circuit of the community, then full tilt to the winning line by the table of honour. Not the sleek ten-gear mountain-bikes which would suit this terrain, but contraptions from India that accentuate the bumps. One cholita skids, the rest crash into her. Roars of appreciation at the fun and pain. the mangled wheels, the heaped bodies. Copcapfest has begun satisfactorily.
“I’d like you to meet our volunteer,” shouts Edmundo, but conversation is impossible since he’s placed the foreign guests under the manic loudspeakers. We mime greetings. I claim duties and scram, leaving them to scrutinize, if they so wish, the conceptual bubbles and intersecting arrows of the organigrama.
In the real world, however, the twelve Copcap groups are not mingling, they’re each ignoring the other, each to their territory around the football pitch, busily unpacking food and readying costumes.
Ana, looking quite attractive in a floral-pattern cotton shirt, beckons. “Listen, Osvaldo may want to put you on the jury,” she says.
“Who’s on trial?”
“Nobody, idiota, the jury which decides the dancing prizes. Just don’t accept. Whatever the outcome you’ll be accused of favoritism. It’s always controversial.” Thanks for the warning.
So what exactly does a coordinator do? The day’s events are unfolding, barring the odd twist such as the egg n’spoon debacle. We should have boiled those eggs, because when they splatter in the dust, I hear mutterings about wasted food, a felony in the Andes.
While the jury is being rigged, Edmundo fondles the mike, the smooth bastard. He thanks the dignitaries, the guests, the media, remembering to mention the groups last and utterly least. Los invitados are introduced one by one. The crowd jeers at the Bolivians according to their notoreity, particularly a well-known crook from the Banco Andino, and the sub-prefect of La Paz, who is rumoured to have supervised the interrogation of suspected terrorists until recently. Nice friends, Edmundo; like your nose, hand-picked.
In the morning rush I broke the principal rule of altiplano survival - never forget your hat. The sun is remorseless, aka relentless. The shimmering lake scoffs at my discomfort. Only beer is on sale, which will make me thirstier. Kicking at stones, I trudge to where the groups are adjusting their bells and rattles and plumes and whips.
Many troupes have come without musical accompaniment and are foreced to hire the local brass band, now touting for business. A few groups have chosen traditional dances that use wind instruments. One has brought a cassette that the sound system will mercilessly distort.
The competion commences.
First, a touch of devil-prancing; the ones with the whips are the slave-drivers, the dancers in suits and dark glasses are lawyers, Julio informs. And the men in hooped skirts, are they alien robots? Next on, vivid purple and orange.
“Tiring,” I comment to Julio, leaning on him.
“No es nada, in a real country fiesta they’d be dancing all day and the next.”
Even so, concentrated energy is required. The participants seem possessed by the spirit of their dance. I hardly recognize the directorio. Alberto in a bear costume, Amalia as an Incan princess, Elvira strutting in a sequined mini-skirt (a stupendous sight), Faustino looking ten years younger as he leaps agilely, whistle in mouth, marking the beat. For once I regret not having a camera.
And when the awki-awki (old men with bent sticks) has shuffled off, the jury huddles, except for the sub-prefect who’s well into his beers, not to mention that smear of white powder on his moustache.
If you ask my opinion, and no-one will, I’d give the trophy to Inti Wara. They impressed me with their simplicity; white jumpers, carrying-clothes slung diagonally, purple pollera skirts ballooning and swirling, the stoutest of the women soaring on thermals, steps deliberate, movement fluid. And backed by the pan-pipe band of their kids, nice.
But in awarding points, the jury’s clearly going to be fooled by the finery. And it’s not entirely their fault. This should be an exhibition, not a competition. As Julio points out, in the Andes the dance is an offering. You dance for the Earth Mother, to a mountain, for a saint, to purify yourself. I don’t like those expressions of triumph and disappointment as the results are relayed over the demented tannoy.
Third prize is awarded for costly and complex (hired) costumes. Second, and they deserve it, to my mates the Laika, reviving an ancient dance, to melancholic wailings of the tarka flutes. But first prize goes to the maskmakers on grounds of enthusiasm and extravagant dress. The home community, Kotapata, doesn’t figure on the list of winners, which may explain the later disturbances.
But next, lunch. If we humans didn’t have to sit down together three times a day for food, we’d be lost. This is the greatest altiplanic spread I’ve ever seen, the longest expanse of sacking, piled with the widest variety of vegetables and grain. In food we unite, declares Copcap, though it is noticeable that the groups reserve the spiciest specialities for their own sector. Los invitados eat, of course, at high-table with knife and fork.
After the meal, the cake is wheeled in and the presidents of each group come diffidently forward to pull on a ribbon. Each holds a message. Some are innocent - you will serve beer to all the groups, cook for the directorio next month. Others imply cost and are therefore serious - hosting next year’s anniversary goes to Kala Uyo, the poorest group in the Alto, their slice of the cake.
A powercut has silenced the speakers, so I can finally greet the foreigners. The Canadian, who works as a consultant to the UN, has had very little free time. This is a first experience of Bolivian life in the raw, though he arrived the same month as I did. He’s very impressed with this authentic, cultural event.
Likewise Jean and Claudette, a couple of teachers at the exclusive French college in the south zone of the city. Until now, the closest they’ve come to popular culture is saying ‘buenos dias’ every morning to their maid. I let all three of them congratulate me on my wondrous job. It’s nice to bask occasionally and we don’t have enough common ground for me to explain the nature of this latest Copcap farce, even if I could.
But I can’t fool Thom the Californian. He’s been here over twenty years.
“Never even intended to come to this damned country, man, let alone stay,” he mutters, slurping beer through his beard. “You just wander in and it’s so easy to start a business or get a wife, or both. You’re buzzing around and then, oops - flies to fly-paper, man. I got a life sentence.” He smiles wryly and cracks opens another bottle.
A sharp breeze has robbed the sunshine of warmth. From blistering heat to chill, there’s no moderation on the altiplano. But it’s not merely the change in weather. The soccer tournament has begun and kick-off marks the end of any carnival atmosphere. Beer’s being opened, cratefuls at a time, neat alcohol too. In the women’s games, the cholitas, unskilled but determined, trundle about the pitch to persistent heckling. Edmundo and crew find this hilarious, playtime at the zoo.
When the men line up, joking ceases however, to be replaced by a hostility as jagged as the rock-shards that Faustino’s rakers have failed to clear from the pitch. Drink and football forming their usual ugly partnership. Alberto drags me to the corner-flag where his maskmakers are stationed. The trophy stands prominently under their awning.
“Share a glass of beer with us,” becomes 3 or 4. Indeed, the fizzy lager does refresh, cleanses the dust in the throat marvellously. A nip of the hard stuff also slips down easy. The problem is that when I finally disengage from the first group, I’m trapped by the next. On and on, from one bunch of revellers to another, until I become truly soused and doused and giddy.
At what point of the circuit was that fateful note stuffed in my pocket? I’m swaying on a chair near to Thom, rummaging for matches, when I find the page torn from a notebook, a message in block capitals.
Even adrift on a sea of alcohol, I don’t for a moment doubt that I have received the summons from Pancho. Just that I can’t recall who, what or where the Garita is.
Meanwhile, two teams and their supporters are hacking and punching in the centre of the pitch. It’s the Kotapatans against a city group, who’ve enlisted husbands and sons for the game. In this town and country battle, the Laika aren’t going to stand idly by.
Edmundo initially appears contented as the fighting spreads. After all, neo-liberals favour tough competition and it’s only los indios bloodying each other. But when the first stones threaten to scratch the paintwork of his Dutch-donated supercruiser, we’re talking property. The guests have heard reports of growing discontent in the campo and will be wondering how far Edmundo’s authority actually extends. Time to retreat, before this event turns overwhelmingly authentic.
Except they leave Thom behind. He’s too busy sampling the excellent lager and those remarkable shots of cane alcohol with a resistance greater than mine. A bitter wind has whipped a wall of dust upon us, masking the football hordes and the departing cars. The display panel crashes and folds, organigrama to origami.
Though the scenes whirl by, this I do recall from the carousel.
Rigoberto, towering above the players and fans, tries to control the ruck, which parts and reforms behind him. Elvira and Ana gather those musicians still capable of staggering. The brass band instruments are already stashed, but flute players don’t lose their wind so readily. Music, the two women insist, get playing.
And the circle forms in shuffling motion (no leaps, no bounds), absorbing bodies as it encounters them, splits, reunites and breaks again, till every person, like it or not, conscious or not, is pulled into the weaving conga line. We dance beyond exhaustion, even in the inevitable downpour. It’s the stinging hail that eventually sends us running the buses.
Hail and farewell. Strong hands dump me on the back of a truck, in the open, under a plastic sheet. My turn to act the idiot. Once I’m convinced that Thom is safely aboard (he is; I hear him moaning, “Flies to fly-paper – life sentence, man.”), I fuss about Asunta. She’s on one of the buses - wanna see her - it’s already gone - wanna be sick. Oh, the fun of being brutally, irresponsibly drunk. Let the rain soak the vomit from my clothes. I’ll sink into my sweet bolivian oblivion.