Friday, 25 May 2007

Chapter 3

Ok, deers, 'ere we go again। The Democrats have given in to Bush, shamefully allowing him to spend squillions more on pointless killing of innocents (yah, boo) and one of my favourite actors, Jean Reno, has outed himself as a friend of M. Sarkozy, (boo, hoo). So what more can a poor boy do? Seek solace in the blog. Here's the next chapter!

Chapter 3
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?”
Quite likely.
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.

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