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.