Friday, 25 May 2007
If the Cap Fits
I’m permitted a shortish siesta to recover. Ana could holler from the bottom of the stairs or knock, but she prefers to summon me Bolivian-style, pebble sharp against the window.
“Hurry,” she shouts up from the yard “They’re waiting for you.”
“El directorio.” Board of directors? Images of a London club, plush velvet, flunkies in bow-ties. Until a radio’s sad Latin beat fixes my whereabouts.
“It’s only few blocks to the office.” Vamonos, she’s gesturing.
Under the canopy of intense blue, the streets are mudbrick corridors behind which I sense hidden life. An old man is selling bread through a hatch in a wall. Though I’m a strange apparition, none of the locals stare at me, not the woman struggling under a huge bundle, not the labourer hefting pickaxe and shovel, nor the kids balanced on a rickety bike. Dust stirs in the breeze.
We turn the corner, Ana signals, a band strikes up. Handshakes and backslaps, confetti and streamers round my neck. The Copcap building, when I finally disentangle myself for a view, is another unzen Alto masterpiece, a fancy 3-tier arrangement, anaemic pink this time. No matter, the members of the band, a wind ensemble of pan-pipes and flutes, are refreshingly ethnic, grizzled, windswept and real.
The musicians, nine men in a variety of pokey hats, look like they’re straight off the country bus. I mean, one guy still has straw in his hair. Rough-looking bunch, awesomely ragged, calloused hands and torn sweaters, but their sound is tight.
Three women approach, radiating authority and enthusiasm. They hug me. The overweight one, bursting from sweater and trousers, introduces herself as Elvira. The other two wear traditional dress, bowler hat, a shawl, layers of stiff skirts. The Afro-Bolivian is tall, her companion tiny. “Lidia, Amalia,” they say. Too many names already.
Attracted by the music, more folk are pouring out of the building. A vividly skirted women grasps my wrist and sweeps me into dance steps, tango sumo-style. Circling dancers, rounds of foaming lager and, from another corner of the yard, the dissonant counter-rhythm of a brass band, singularly off-key and weird. These musicians, in shiny black suits, seem remote and unfriendly. Accurate assessment. Ana later tells me they aren’t members of the association, been hired especially for the occasion (also available saint-days, football tournaments, funerals and weddings).
The pipe musicians, however, are all members of the directorio, so they take breaks to hug and embrace me too. Yes, hello, delighted. Their welcome gives the lie to the Aymara reputation for reserve. What madness; being presented, garlanded, while both sets of musicians strain for predominance.
By now the situation is fluid; beer and speeches flow. Hey, dig it. This boozy chaos is in my honour! Full of colour, noise and character, Copcap lives, isn’t some footnote in an agency file. Here are the Andean peasants I’ve come to help and they’re glad to see me, aren’t they?
But alcohol is not my strong card. What with the altitude, the competing bands, the dancing, they have to park their dizzy new volunteer on a chair. Yet I’m not so far gone that I fail to note the entrance of a light-skinned, lightly-bearded, bulky man in a suit.
How appropriate that my first sighting of Edmundo shows him working the crowd. Quiet words, a smile, the admonitory finger, Edmundo dispensing favours. Nor do I overlook how he‘s dampened the reception. This oily-smooth performance of his quite sobers me.
And sets me thinking about the obligations that accompany such hospitality. Hardy, friendly folk these, whom it wouldn’t do to disappoint. So, what have I to offer them?
A week further on and Edmundo is probing the same point.
“There are parts of your work plan that I don’t follow. The objectives are not clearly formulated. And where are the indicators? Or have you confused them with your aims?”
I gaze about to gain time, for all the world like a school-kid who claims to have mislaid his homework. Attempting to cobble together an reasonable plan for this interview has been a headache, despite Ana’s help in smuggling old reports out of the office.
We are four, perched on wooden chairs at a respectful distance from Edmundo’s wide desk. As in the wolf pack, each is required to show some form of submission. To my right, Don Faustino, hat on lap, hands on knees, grunts approval. This wary, wiry, deferential peasant is the elected head of the Copcap directorio and theoretically employs us all (or so the foreign funders are led to believe).
Edmundo peers over his wide glasses at him. Five hundred years into the cycle, Spanish descendant and unvanquished Indian play out the latest version of a game of which I haven’t the slightest inca-ling, except to surmise that Faustino is well in tow, not here to support me.
Nor will Ana on my left. Her bluster doesn’t extend to the carpeted hush of this top-floor office. The array of gadgetry unnerves her, as does that blonde secretary installed in a nearby alcove. Ana’s nodded once or twice; yes, yes, the new volunteer is surprisingly out of his depths, otherwise her arms are folded in dedicated concentration. A local woman, an alteña, doesn’t appear that she’s about to contradict her boss.
Who swivels in his executive-chair, focusing his scorn on me. “I clearly stated to London that we expected experience and initiative.” In fairness, Edmundo seems a capable enough manager. One imagines his elite background, a childhood attended by servants, followed by a blinkered but adequate education. Perhaps a political career beckons. Governments overflow with his kind of acceptably corrupt populists. But why are we deferring to him?
Well, Elvira, the fourth participant, is made of sterner stuff. “Señor director, perhaps Jaime needs a certain time to adjust.” Note, she’s addressing Edmundo, not Faustino. The distinction between the director and the head of the directorio is subtle and confusing, though the contrast in their power is not. Anyway, Elvira is ignored. But cheers, dear. Thanks for the show of solidarity.
And a solid she is too, hefty. From what I’ve learnt about her background, Elvira was a maths teacher, now treasurer of this organization, plucked from the ranks on an ability to juggle figures. Somewhat schoolma’amy, you can tell, and on a different wavelength to Ana whose woven satchel identifies her as a university graduate. Elvira’s plastic shopping-bag is for carrying food back to the family.
Fascinating observations to shade in the details, but Edmundo’s still staring at me.
“Yes, time is pressing and it’s time that you started work. Can’t go round acting like a celebrity forever, young man.”
Osvaldo the economist enters, Mr. Purse-Strings himself, positioning himself close to Edmundo. Very childish, yet so reminiscent of Leaside school, where staff also delighted in such status games. Immediately on the attack, Osvaldo picks up my plan (product of hours of invention), holds one corner between forefinger and thumb as if it were contaminated, sniffs, lets it drop on the desk.
“Do you really think this corresponds to our needs, young man?” Wish they wouldn’t keep calling me that - I do have a name. It’s becoming evident that local intellectuals both require and despise foreigners. Their dressing me down is meant to trim my wings before I can establish any independence.
“Look Edmundo, mira, mire,” I say, alternating, in my exasperation, between the personal and formal mode of address in Spanish. “I thank you for a marvelous welcome, but all that’s happened since my arrival is that I’ve hung around the office, doing nothing directly related to my work. Copcap invited me over and I need orientation. Then I’ll get busy. Hands on, you know.”
The two executives exchange a look. Osvaldo laughs openly. Ana’s snicker is almost masked by her folder. I suppose my little speech is considered foolish, too personal, too earnest - in short, too gringo.
Allowing Osvaldo to display his thinnest smile. “Muy bien. Some of our projects may require slight revision.”
“They should all be completely overhauled,” comments Elvira.
“And where do I fit in?”
“We are in need of someone to supervise these enterprises.” Osvaldo stresses that last word to inject a sense of business practice. Unfortunately ‘supervise’ is an indiscretion, implying, as it does, some degree of control and decision-making.
Big Ed corrects the phraseology.
“Which is to say, we’d like you to be our Coordinator.” Only one step down the ladder. Innocently pleased with its ring of responsibility, I don’t recognize the poisoned chalice.
During the Little Coronel’s dictatorship of the ‘70s, ‘los coordinadores’ were hand-picked thugs who lorded over and milked the peasant communities. And now el coronelito is president again with a massive 22% of the popular vote and I’m going to race cheerfully from group to group, cloaked in a title that inevitably associates me with those blood-thirsty hounds.
“Settled then, fine,” concludes Edmundo
Don Faustino delivers his first words of the morning. “So, let us proceed to the directorio.” A meeting? News to me. We descend two flights of stairs, Ossie clutching an old briefcase, Ed a very slim folder.
The entire ground-floor of the building is one vast room, dominating by a long, rectangular table. The stalwarts of the Board are ranged around it. The sturdy, scruffy musicians of my wild welcome have transformed themselves into a convened authority. Their clothing hasn’t improved, but they do look the part, pencils to hand, notepads at the ready.
Elvira squeezes in between Lidia and Amalia. Faustino takes his place at the head of the table. Edmundo and Osvaldo seat themselves at the ‘bottom’. Well, who’s to judge heads or tails?
A confession; I can’t stand meetings, can’t abide them. The merest whiff of a committee is guaranteed to sandbag my brain. Five minutes into the session, the wet blanket has already descended and I’m doodling, studying the dust-motes that float by the torn vaccination-campaign posters. Wiser to concentrate on the proceedings – they concern me.
Taking his cue from upstairs, Faustino proposes Joven Jaime, that’s me, as Coordinator of Projects. There are no objections once they’ve checked and received a nod from the top/bottom of the table. Everyone except me must be aware of the resonances of coordinador, but presenting this little handicap to the innocent newcomer is probably their idea of good clean fun, on a par with getting me drunk the other week.
That gripe apart, I should say how very impressed, overawed even, I am by the articulateness of the directorio. All the members participate, especially the old-timer with straw in his hair who declaims passionately in Spanish and Aymara. I can’t vouch for content of the discussions but, for certain, Faustino knows the rules of procedure and the women present, if anything, dominate the proceedings.
I’m not surprised to discover that, among Andean communities, failure to speak at an assembly is considered almost criminal or a sign of imbecility. I’m not a fluent speaker; at my late school, one of the nicknames bestowed on me was Dumbo. One of them.
Friday, 18 May 2007
Bo Nesto is chuffed to see the book here, so we'll continue with this endeavour, like Sancho P and Don Q. (But which one is which?) We shall post them on the blogs, we shall email all our friends, we shall
send them to the publishers and to the agents, we shall even pay to see it in print; we shall never surrender. Ok, so maybe a vanity edition is going too far. So here's the next lot.
A House With No Name
Despite her clutter of amulets, trinkets and dopey boyfriends, my mum Joanne has influenced me deeply. She’s taught me the value of harmony, for example, though it’s a state rarely achieved in her own life. So I have the sense to distrust this volunteer house immediately.
Luis has skidded to a halt with a flourish. “Your new home,” beams Ana reverently, hands on hips. We step back to appreciate the construction in its full magnificence. A 2-storey box, provided by Copropac for my comfort and isolation, looms like a threat on the landscape.
Osvaldo selects a key from the bunch on his belt and unlocks the door to the yard, leaving Ana and Julio to struggle with the luggage. They won’t let me help; visiting dignitary, I’m being coddled. On three sides neighbours gape from upstairs windows on my arrival. I wave foolishly, they stare back.
The dismal yard is a jumble of stones and rubble. A cement path slices at an ill-judged angle towards the building which squats sullenly, the model of non-zen. A very prim model of brick and peeling plaster. If I assumed that life in the Alto would mean roughing it in some humble adobe abode, this building disabuses me, fast..
Hey, over there, some adobe. Ana’s pointing to a plain mud-brick room camouflaged between wall and latrine. “That’s where your caretaker lives,” she says. In mangled Spanish, I attempt to convey how little I need taking care of.
“Ay, you’re thinking of cooking and cleaning and washing clothes yourself, aren’t you?”
“I’ve always looked after myself,” I parry, kicking at the dusty ground
“Here is very different from your country. You do realize that, knowing a gringo lives here, the thieves will empty out the house first chance.” I’m from the East End of London, lady. Don’t tell me about the horrendous crime wave in the Alto. I’m sure I’ll drift around unharmed, inconspicuous as an iceberg in the Mediterranean. My untidy appearance will fool the thieves.
“I prefer to look after myself.” I insist.
Dropping the heavy bag onto the rubble, Ana changes tack to guilt-tripping the foreigner.. “And be responsible for having Doña Asunta thrown out? Sabes, ella no tiene dónde vivir.” Nowhere else to live - as likely a tale as not.
At which point a silver-haired, sparkly-eyed old woman emerges from a corner of the yard and shuffles over. In her threadbare faded clothes, she really is extraordinarily shabby, though not dirty, no way, merely organic. The old dear sums up all my preconceptions of Andean wisdom and dignified poverty. When I try to shake her hand, she murmurs an Aymara welcome and pulls me down into a back-patting embrace of surprising energy. From first hug, it’s clear that here stands one unwrinkled soul.
Ana’s argument has left me just the gentleman’s option of offering to swap our accomodation or submitting. A glance at the shack, and I submit to the game-plan.
Osvaldo’s clearing his throat. He wants to make a ceremony of presenting the house-keys. Then he pushes the metal door open to reveal an interior of. loud rugs over concrete floors, walls shaded too deeply blue, and, get this, a pink sofa with matching armchairs covered in thin plastic, which I’m immediately forbidden to remove. The dust, don’t you know? A tv, also in its plastic sheath, has place of honour, the sofa and chairs ranged round in audience.
This is my home? A cluttered parody of bourgeois dreams foisted on one of the poorest neighbourhoods on earth.
“Bonita, no?” coos our radical student Julio, prodding and inspecting the furniture.
“No falta nada. Ah Jaime, you’ll lack for nothing,” is Ana’s summary. “The last occupant, el Inginiero Gunther, was most extremely careful.” Indeed, I doubt he dared sit on the sofa.
I make another attempt at reasoning. “Ana, this is totally not my style. Don’t you have menos, menos,....... less?” the word, perhaps the concept itself, dissolves confronted by this perfectly hideous room. Osvaldo assumes cost is the problem and with his trademark smile-cum-sneer assures me that this classy cage is rent-free, except for electricity and Doña Asunta’s wages, who has just nipped in and is staring open-mouthed at the blank tv screen.
“Listen,” I appeal to no-one and everyone, “ I’m not used to such, such a....... ” what? Test of my discretion? At least the net curtains block the view of the yard.
“This is the second time, Jaime, that you’ve told us how different you are,” Ana reprimands. “Now that you’re here, try to adapt. Don’t expect your life to be the same as it was.” Cunning spin - forget your so-called values. Maybe she’s right; I will have to chuck my excess baggage overboard. On the other hand, who is she to decide between the excess and the essential? This woman is going to cause me problems.
Englishmen, when in doubt, search for the kettle. At my prompting, the figures in the ideal homescape scatter. Julio to pace the yard with agile steps, measuring the site of the vegetable plot, he says. Ana rummages in cupboards for cups and sugar, rehearsing her next assault on my attitudes. Doña Asunta wields a broom, spreads the dust around the room. And Osvaldo? He’s at ease on the couch, which squeaks in delight.
The company busy, I can sneak up the stairs, gingerly, gingerly, because my head is swirling in the altitude. The bedroom is yellow, the bedcover lilac, curtains are lace. The window looks onto a distant mountain, a collosal chunk of rock topped by the requisite amount of snow. The view, however, is fragmented by an elecricity pole, cables, neighbouring balconies and a curious steeple. Mt. Illimani vandalised, like a moustachioed Mona Lisa.
No surprise; every room in my life has had a flawed prospect. I grew up in a beautiful Lancashire valley, but back-to-back housing blocked any sight of Pendle Hill. Or that last one in London, giving onto the jutting corner of the Hackney Asylum. I don’t choose them; they pick me. But this crate is a classic; an ugly, dissonant house that squanders the gifts of sunrise, sunlight and sunset.
Julio has joined me upstairs, his physical proximity unsettling. “Trees thrive here once the roots take,” he comments and points to a fine example some blocks away. I’d have thought concrete grows better. “No, no, really, a little protection and the saplings shoot up.” The boy fancies himself an expert; and I fancy the boy.
“Vengan a tomar técito!” - the summons to tea.
I manage to stagger downstairs, though I seem to be wading through a medium thicker than ordinary air. Doña Asunta bustles in with the steaming mugs, Ana is seated at the table making notes. Osvaldo’s gone.
I clutch at my forehead.
“Try some of this coca tea.”
“Is it legal?”
“Claro, the leaves are a very fine tonic. None of my business what you foreigners convert them into. In the Andes this is la planta sagrada, the sacred plant, and if you’re invited by anyone, you’d better chew and enjoy it, amigo mio, otherwise you’ll find it hard to work with anyone.”
“Why? Ouch!” Sipping the maté, I’ve scalded my lip on the metal rim of the mug.
“Because if you don’t accept hospitality, who’s going to trust you? No eres uno de estos vegetarianos, no?”
“Well actually for the past few years......”
“Forget it,” she cuts in, shaking the mass of her long, straight hair. “You are no longer a vegetarian. When someone kills their best pig in your honour, you eat.” She flashes a smile, incredulous and provocative.
“Is that likely to happen?”
Doña Asunta has folded herself onto the floor between sofa and armchairs, her silver head at our knee level, not rejecting the furniture, simply in her natural posture. She’s sitting strategically in front of the tv, hinting. A humble, stubborn woman who wants very little and will get it.
Leave us here, sipping our coca tea. For the moment, seduced by novelty, I’m accepting the whole tasteless set-up as an unavoidable burden, the better to focus on the work ahead.
The chorus of a golden oldie has lodged itself in my throbbing head: “been through the desert in a house with no name.” That can’t be right.
Wednesday, 16 May 2007
Bo Nesto is the Pseudonym of an English expat living in El Alto. The following is purely fictional, though we can surmise that some of it is based on experience! Enjoy. There is more to follow.
The setting is El Alto and La Paz, Bolivia, in the late nineties: the dying days of an ex-dictator... A Nameless Street.
Bitter winds churn the trash-heaps that adorn central London, send them swirling about the drab pavement. In the lobby of the high-rise, a drowsy receptionist points to an out-of-order lift. Panting by the twenty-third floor, I check the sign on the door. This must be it - ‘Volunteers for International Development’. V.O.I.D: - why not? The paintwork, still wet, smears my right hand black.
Is an office anonymous to the point of non-existence, without a secretary, telephone or computer, not a clock on the wall, nor even a calendar to mark this auspicious date. The interviewer, a sandy-haired, freckled fattie in a suit, half rises to greet me, flops back into the swivel chair.
“Oh, you’ll just love the place,” he gushes, pushing a brown envelope across the empty desk.
“My Spanish isn’t so hot.”
“I’m advised that the locals speak quite slowly.” He glances at his watch, suggesting a time factor to this interview. “Yes, I do believe Bolivia offers the opportunity you‘ve been looking for, Mr. Stalker.”
So the job’s mine, gift-wrapped, his only task to urge me over the hurdles.
“Mind you, that period you spent in La Coruña, what language were you speaking there?” He pauses to wipe a handkerchief over his ruddy face and gauge the effect of that little jibe, information I certainly haven’t included in my CV. How much else does he know of Mum’s commune?
Hedging, I ask, “What’s the host organization’s name again?”
“Copcap," he snaps. "Cooperación y Capacitación”. I’m sure even with your limited Spanish, you can grasp what that means, eh?” Olé, touché. But a project that goes by the name of police helmet? Ha!
I should walk out now, leave sweaty suit to his very extemporary office-space and practised charm. Instead I fish in my pocket for the cutting but seem to have forgotten it back home - typical. Now what were those ringing phrases in the Guardian ad? ‘Dynamic networker required with field experience of community policy implementation.’ Apparently that’s me.
Perhaps one could stretch the point to include classroom guard-duty over surly, indifferent, unruly East End youth. You see, I’ve been teaching Social Studies for three years now at Leaside Comprehensive in Hackney.
“This opportunity won’t come again,” he adds, “and of course we are extremely glad to have someone with your authentic academic background.” I detect a note of sarcasm.
“Oh yes, we know all about you,” he drawls, extracting my application from the folder (the one document in the file) only to screw it into a ball and pitch it into the empty wastepaper basket. “Everything’s on record – including your little problems.” That mocking tone again, emphasis on ‘little’. His cloudy blue eyes glitter momentarily.
“Um, so what exactly will I be doing?”
“You’ll be thoroughly briefed by your contacts over there. Send a report every few months. Any problems, try the British Embassy if they’re open. And please, no politics - a bit messy out there. Someone should meet you at the airport.”
Mr. Smith (or is it Mr. Jones?) rises, checks that I have the envelope, rises, then squeezes my hand far too firmly and accompanies me to the door with the spring of an athlete only recently lapsed to fat. Not such a slovenly man once in motion, he has a certain physical grace. I consider asking some relevant questions but he’s off again.
“Understand, you’re a volunteer and there’s no official salary. You’ll be on an allowance though. Enough to live rather well compared to your neighbours in fact.” Hey, do I need that kind of privilege? “Plus housing, health insurance, vacation-time and a flight back - if you manage to complete the two-year stint.”
He registers my quizzical glance. “Some people might find the Alto strange, a bit daunting. Thank you. Next,” he barks into the deserted corridor. The doors of the now-functioning lift slide open as I approach. From behind the dozing receptionist has vanished; a burly doorman stands observing my exit.
How very simple, an air ticket clutched in my hand, and I’ve allowed urgency to override intuition. Well, it’s my choice.
Any change, any movement at all will do.
The Bolivian jet lunges westwards through turbulence. I expect to see rainforest canopy below, but the Amazon has shrunk; ranches and cow pasture litter the landscape. Nor was there any samba send-off at Rio airport either.
Over redrock canyons, where lonely homesteads cling to the skin of the planet. Have to admire those settlers, their courage, their determination. For my part, I opened a Friday edition of the newspaper and casually selected another fate.
Bring on the mountains, then. Our pilot makes a great show of scraping by the peaks, close enough for powdery snow to chill my soul. Once we’re beyond the range, a city in a bowl appears. Reassuringly, I can pick out the football stadium, a military barracks, crowds. But we’re flying past La Paz, over the rim of the crater and onto an arid, harsh plain that could be the moon.
Except there are the rectangles of cultivated land, animals grazing, communities to people the vacancy of a vast plateau. The aircraft descends onto a earthenware city of sparkling tin-roofs. Welcome to the Alto…….
…… Where no reception committee awaits at the international aerodrome, of course, and since pay-phones require local coinage, my contact number’s useless. Well, I’ll let first impressions form. Great coffee, excellent. Policemen strutting operatically in tight green uniforms, displaying the requisite combination of comedy and menace. And as backdrop to the lunar plain, the mountains glisten in the clear, sunny air.
Aha, a group of tentative Bolivians, finally tracing their gringo, bumble into the café area. Delayed - claro - no hay problema - and away they jostle me, the waiter smirking at the $5 note I’m forced to leave for a 60c. espresso.
These people whom I don’t know are embracing me, chattering, especially a stocky, plump, pock-marked young woman. Our troupe is surprised by the exit doors swinging open automatically, our shocked laughter creating a first shared event.
Under a cloudless sky, the Bolivians are hauling my baggage into the car-park towards a battered Toyota pick-up. The sunlight through the window-panes had me fooled; the air outside is much cooler, sharper, thinner than I would have thought.
Away from the stifling habitat of the airport, the bags are set down, formal introductions made . The woman, Ana, radiates confidence. She presents Julio, university graduate, the attraction of whose whippy, sinewy stride I’ve already registered and rejected - way off limits, Jim lad.
Then Luis, the Copcap driver, offers his gap-toothed smile while attempting to wipe the ingrained mud from the backseat with a rag. I protest that my jeans can take it and he must think I’m complaining because his clean-up intensifies.
Another man sits in the front passenger seat, impassive, bored. The Copcap economist reluctantly deigns to flap a languid, manicured hand and a speech in rapid-fire Spanish which he must know is beyond me. Why do I suspect he’s got adequate English and the cunning to hide it? No failure of intuition here; spindly Osvaldo clearly detests whatever he’s decided I represent.
Five minutes from car park to perimeter fence, yet already I’m fending off an inquisition so naive as to be embarrassing. Ana, giggling, enquires, “¿Estas casado, Jaime?” - married? “¿Tienes novia?” - girlfriend? Well now, to convey the complexities of our Hackney scene would require some skill. I do try to explain, unaware that the interrogation is a ritual (stock responses will suffice) Luckily, the language barriers are still insuperable .
Backseat, wedged between Ana and Julio, pretending that she’s not pressing my thigh and I’m not exploring his shoulder, when the next dumb question ricochets in.
“¿Cómo te gusta el pais?” Rather early to judge your country, but ever the diplomat, I do manage – ‘beautiful country – bonita’ - honour satisfied? But the next one somehow upsets me “¿Y cuánto cuesta tu pasaje?” Hold on, my new and suddenly intimate friends, where I come from, probing the details of the air-fare is considered intrusive. If I’m too stunned to reply, it’s not delicacy nor even 13,000 feet of altitude. No, what’s dismaying me now is the urban blight outside the airport.
We’ve halted on the rim of the high plateau. Below, La Paz beckons. Do I get treated to the glorious tourist view? I do not. We turn our backs and stare instead at the Alto sprawling infinitely away.
“Thirty years ago this was nothing,” Ana asserts, her blouse swelling with civic pride. “According to the last census, we now have a population of nearly a million.” Fine, but why have the migrants filled the plain with such anti-architecture? Unattractive brick and adobe neighbourhoods spread half-finished and unpainted into the distance.
Ana cups the palms of her hands in homage to the mess. “¿Asi, te gusta nuestra ciudad?” No, on first acquaintance, I certainly don’t like your city. When Julio adds some cliché about El Alto, City of the Future, I’m proud of my restraint, of not making the obvious quip, ‘because there’s nothing much here at the moment’.
Julio has noticed my smile numbing to a grimace. “We have a busy city centre, too,” he says, La Ceja - the eyebrow. Why not? A centre on the edge, claro, guarding the old road down to La Paz - which, unfortunately, we just missed. Nevermind, there’s a jumble of buses and minivans and, dig this, my first bowler-hatted women, seated cross-legged under sheets of blue nylon, laughing, the piles of vegetables they sell thoroughly unfamiliar.
The smooth asphalt has given way to roadworks. Mid-morning, heavy machinery idles. One day this might develop into a significant highway; at present, traffic is crawling between dust and stagnant pot-holes. Our conversation withers under the thick exhaust fumes and the assault of blaring horns. Then the Toyota, jolting crazily behind a once-white taxi, discovers an escape route.
The committee’s curiosity rekindles. “¿Y tu familia? Do tell me about your family back home.” Ana’s eager, obviously big on family, she’s tugging enthusiastically at my sleeve. I look at her bulging out of her tight jeans and that multi-flowered blouse, and construct a statement; “mi mama es muy buena” (or is it bonita?). Cloying enough, you’d think, but she strikes a nerve by asking, “¿Y tu papá?”
Back home, I might dive into such intricacies with a stranger. Ana’s earnest gaze stops me. Easy to blame Spanish for the ravine that divides us. The language has sliding sections to the verbs. Nouns and adjectives may agree with each other - they don’t necessarily agree with me. So I fail to explain an absent father; well, she doesn’t admit to the kids she’s rearing.
Meanwhile, Luis has found an opportunity to race along a stretch of clear highway. He accelerates round the tight bend only to brake hard because a long, red banner, held at either end by masked figures, blocks the way ahead. Flares and rockets. The thrill of a good demo; I can feel it in the pit of my stomach.
Luis pulls to the right, spraying dust on a young vendor, sets her baby squawling. Carelessness or doesn’t he care? I’d like to apologize to the woman but lack the phrases or access to the window.
Ana is bouncing in rhythm to the chanting. “The teachers, presente!” – apparently they are the ones blocking our route.
“Malditos profesores,” snarls Osvaldo. “Damned teachers. Troublemakers. They should be working instead of striking.”
“And if their demands are legitimate?” queries Julio.
“There are appropriate channels.”
“They haven’t been paid in months...........”
Julio and Ana laying into their boss who, quivering with rage, responds with what must be stock abuse worldwide - trotskyite parasite infiltrators, crypto-terrorists, etc. I do wonder, at this point, how Osvaldo gets to be working on a social project. I’m too fresh on the scene to judge, however, and the demonstration is advancing towards us.
First lesson in Bolivian obliviousness. The Copcap team heatedly debate to an audience of me, Luis and the bemused fruit-vendor, who cradles her baby and watches the road anxiously.
Their massed ranks are on us. A vigorous, wiry woman grasps the flapping mid-section of the banner and turns to face the teachers, rallying them with a battery megaphone held in her free hand. Some of the women have brought small children along. The men carry stout poles. Slogans swirl in the wind
“Afuera tirano - el pueblo ha llegado.” Tyrant out - the people are here. Julio explains they’re referring to the ‘little Colonel’, now the dubiously elected president – a ‘70s dictator remarketed for these neo-liberal times.
Ana and Julio leave the Toyota to greet acquaintances by name, shaking hands, patting kids, applauding the posters and banners. Osvaldo has turned sideways, head stubbornly, conspicuously averted. I get out, pausing just one second to wonder about the marchers’ reaction to a white stranger in their midst. No sweat; the comrades pull me in.
Luis, who’s been studying the rear-view mirror, all at once starts the motor, honks the horn, revs the engine, urgently recalling us. We pile in to the Toyota which is now cutting across stragglers, riding the dusty curb into a side-street as the first tear-gas canisters thump from a distance. Uniformed goons spring a trap and the march is already dissolving in blood and panic.
Back in the car, Ana is furious. She grabs Luis’s collar to make him stop. “Such a rush, such fear, Luchito. What are we escaping from?” True enough, we hardly cut heroic figures; a dog barks and we scamper like sheep into the pen.
“Maybe our newly-arrived guest doesn’t want to be involved in our problems quite yet,” replies Oswaldo, filing his nails, would you believe?
“Never too soon,” Ana protests.
Welcome to Bolivia, plainly.