Wednesday, 20 June 2007

chapter 6!

Right, here goes the next chapter। The feedback is thunderingly silent. Glum, moan.

Chapter 6
The Lake, Lake Show.

Our expedition’s off-key from the non-start.
Sure, I’m learning that any agreement is a point of reference, not an appointment. But Osvaldo laid on this serious rap last night about teamwork; 6 sharp everyone, we must impress the Kotapatan community with our keenness. Instead, pre-dawn, I’m alone, fuming and smoking outside the padlocked gates of the Copcap offices.
Half an hour later, accompanied by a blaze of red over the mountains, Elvira appears. She’s hauling a small boy and a loaded shopping bag - trust a parent to remember food. Together we observe how the dog-packs, just released from their yards, ignore all the expanse of available earth and proceed to dump the first turds of the day on smooth concrete.
The sky has settled to a monotony of blue by the time Faustino arrives, wearing two hats, a knitted Andean ear-flap cap, above it a funky derby. He’s carrying his own knotted bundle of supplies - perhaps he also reads dreams for omens. The head of the directorio is breathing deeply, indicating how he dashed to get here on time.
Next on stage Luis, braking hard and leaping from the Toyota. He’s come equipped with a pair of excuses about unopened gas-stations, bother from the traffic cops. Elvira gestures disbelief behind his back.
I trail a finger over the dust on the Toyota and reflect on Shakespeare’s last testament (not necessarily the irrelevance it may seem). With an Edmund and an Oswald swaning around the stage, this show could could turn into a re-run of ‘King Lear’. But returning to Shakespeare’s will; retired actor dramatically leaves second-best bed to wife. Scholars have puzzled over the fate of number-one bed ever since, but in Copcap there isn’t any mystery. The top car is for the boss. Edmundo has skimmed off the handsome 4-wheel drive for himself, courtesy of unsuspecting Dutch donors, who believe that their $30,000 investment is working to alleviate poverty. And we are allocated the second-best, workhorse vehicle on sufferance
Edmundo knows how to keep this privilege complex. Using the blue Toyota entails paperwork - timesheets, chits, maintenance bills. On this frozen morning, I do wonder if my walk-on part is building to tragedy or comedyor both..
Still, the car’s here and we’re thankful enough to huddle inside the warmth of the double-cabin, three adults and a kid, jammed into the back seat. Only Oswaldo dawdles, but we’re leaving the front seat vacant, unquestioningly. Outside, the Alto stirs, humble commuters hurry for the downtown buses.
Elvira sends Luis on some errand (“I don’t trust that man. He’s all ears and smiles”), before commenting on this particular project disaster: “Even at minimum interest,” she explains to me, “they’ll be owing for the next four years.”
“Un momento, Elvira. Aren’t these projects supposed to be a fully funded from Europe?” I glance over to corner where Faustino is pretending to snooze, one hat shielding his ears, the other pulled over his eyes. “
“Yes and no,” she replies. “The Kotapatans have set up a trout-hatchery out in the bay with Peruvian equipment and the Japanese providing the stock of fish - neither is cheap.” Well, she’s the math teacher, so figures come easy, though hers is pressing me hard against the door-handle.
I don’t get it. “You mean they’ve borrowed extra cash from us and we’re charging them interest?”
“Edmundo and Osvaldo insist. They say that if the Kotapatans are serious about the trout business, they’ll want to receive funds on real commercial terms.” Which I can only interpret ascreating debt where credit is due.
“I’m the treasurer and have to deal with this. That’s why I’m on this trip today,” she adds uncomfortably and feeds her little boy a stale crust.
“Then why’s Osvaldo coming?”
“Well, he’s the economist, isn’t he?” Small print - to ensure that we don’t make any unwise concessions. “There’s a second project too. Cattle breeding.”
At which Don Faustino, if he was asleep, wakes. “I managed to get this proposal accepted by the directorio for my home-community.” Heaven’s above, the man’s boasting of the influence he’s trafficked. “The project includes a specimen bull.”
Our brief is shortened by Osvaldo’s imperial entrance. He does indeed take the front seat without apology, emaciated arms stretching to claim the entire space. A padded jacket protects his suit.
Watchful Luis returns immediately and jolts the pick-up through a back route beside a dried river-bed. Here, the day’s labour has begun early. Stooped figures are already shoveling gravel onto low trucks. From another dimension, an airliner screams low, a hair’s breadth above us and lands at the airport. The labourers load regardless, impervious.
Within a few miles, the city cedes to countryside, el campo, el altiplano. To our right, the mountain range glints in the morning sun, tangible, clear as the teeth of a saw-blade. The smooth highway glides on to the lake and, beyond to Peru.
The high plateau is neither flat nor empty. Ocassional chiselled outcrops, crags, dips and nodules, lay exposed in the landscape. The land is occupied. Ancient field-systems and terracings emerge, every inch accounted for.
Children are leading oxen to the plough, confidently pulling ropes attached to the noses of the enormous beasts. Barefoot women tread blankets rhythmically, set on some inscrutable purpose. Faustino says they’re skinning the dried potatoes. Why not? Men amble through the unsown fields and dry pasture.
Serene - a word that’s never going to be applied to that maze of Alto walls. Or am I being seduced by the unfamiliar? Look again at those trudging figures; they’re committed to some very hard labour. The altiplano is no theme park, or why would anyone abandon such purity for the clutter of the city?
It would be prudent to suspend the sightseeing and refocus on the conversation in the car, where Osvaldo, at the risk of creasing his second-best suit, is talking down to Elvira in fast, detailed Spanish. I jot down these points.
Review of a fishy project:
Bottom flaw: trout are carnivorous. Each morning the Kotapatans sail the lake, catching small fish to grind into meal, instead of feeding this haul to their own families. Middle flaw; Edgar’s ideas of progress and gain don’t appeal to all the community. Twenty of the eighty-four families have not joined in the plan. Leading to the top flaw: lack of enthusiasm and funds within the group, envy and resentment without. Someone has been cutting the nets of the trout-cages at night.
When I suggest that involving the rest of the village might be a solution, my colleagues treat me like a naive kid. Osvaldo just craps on the idea, pungently, much as those early-morning dogs do. Elvira sits on the fence. Faustino nods, but then he has his stake to protect in this deal, doesn’t he?
“Rest,” he says. “We’re nearly there.”
But to reach our destination, we must pass the Huarina check-point. The previous week, control was minimal. Then I’d been a mere tourist, a day-tripper to Copacabana (that’s the Inca sanctuary on the lake, not a Brazilian beach or Cuban night-club), and the toll-collectors had resembled supermarket security in their blue and gold outfits.
Today, there a police and army-goon presence “Most unusual,” murmurs Elvira.. We are obliged to leave the pick-up, explain who, why and where, IDs are scrutinized. In another of those curious incidents, Osvaldo waits until we’ve returned to the car before presenting his own documents. He extracts a letter too, emphasising the signature with a bony finger.
File under creepy.
File and almost forget because the lake is upon us, shifting green and blue. Titikaka is the residue of a vast sheet of water which once covered the whole plain. By persisting, so high and isolated, it is special, very special, a mirage made virtual.
“There it is.” Faustino points to his lakeside village.The community land curving around the bay,. though fronted by abundant water, has an arid aspect. We leave the highway on a rough and rutted track.
A hundred people have assembled by the lake, men and women in separate groups. A few of their children gawp and giggle, but the women studiously ignore our arrival. They are seated on the ground, drawing wool from fleeces, twisting the fibre onto wooden spindles gripped between their toes. Their bright clothes form a block of primary colours
. The men stand in a wide semi-circle a short distance away, many of them knitting. Hard men, knitting furiously. Three or four approach us slowly, offer tree-bark hands, palms calloused by toil.
During the welcome in Spanish and crackling Aymara, Osvaldo can be seen filing his nails (or is he just scraping off some grains of reality transferred in the handshakes?). One by one we respond, our voices reedy against the deep, staccato translation provided by a stout elder in cardigan and torn pants. I must learn that language.
The meeting has begun, but I can’t concentrate; sparkling distractions are too plentiful. The sheen of the lake, cresting little waves, white-sailed fishing boats, the backdrop of peaks, entrancing. A steady breeze that numbs. Still, part of me registers the public mood only too well.
A ripple of silence swells around Oswald as he accuses the Kotapatans of incompetence. The economist with the scratchy surely saved from a lynching only by the last vestiges of his class authority, a tightrope act which may well finish bound in tight ropes.
That Elvira, next, somehow magics acceptance from the crowd is a tribute to her basic honesty and their respect. But local lad Faustino takes a barracking. They know his game, though the derision, insults and laughter also display how dearly they’d all love to be in his boots (actually tyre-rubber sandals), in that position of power. Then suddenly I’m on.
I stumble through some nonsense of the ‘we-can-work-this-out’ variety, the kind of waffle fit for hoots at Leaside and yet here receiving generous applause. I can’t judge if this is indigenous courtesy or cunning. I’m a blindman tracing the toe-nails of Buddha’s elephant. Dismissed with cheers.
Time for the communards to reply and they do so with anger. Using the odd Spanish word as a bridge over to the Aymara, I follow enough of the argument to know they have a right to their resentment. Possibly the aggression is ritual and yet I’m apprehensive, unsure where the boundaries lie in this strange territory. Tension is mounting when a cracked voice announces a truce: “Merienda, lunch-break.”
Now, whatever our dispute, the rites of hospitality remain sacred. On a line of white sacking, each man and woman takes turns to lay a food offering until the strip is covered in simple abundance. The basic layer is potato, then types of beans and strange roots. Finally, on metal plates the size of ash-trays, a dash of protein, (fish, fried eggs), a tang of relish, (fiery onion and pepper mix). The ingredients of an Andean banquet.
Visitors have first choice and this is hardly the moment to suppress doubts about hygiene. The trick is not even to appear to hesitate, no finickity fumblings, because what has been offered with dignity must be accepted with grace. Squat down and dig in; hello parasites, howdy hep A, B & C.
That first wholesome crunch of a large gnarled potato forever alters my sense of taste and sustenance. Spuds from the source, as if grown already soaked in butter. Remarkable. Swallow down all the rest, the desiccated items, the blackened roots, and keep those elders amused with your clumsiness. Using forefinger and thumb to debone fish is a lateral skill I’ve yet to acquire.
My clowning is rewarded when several of the Kotapatans approach and converse, offer me coca and laugh at the way I chew. Their eyes gleam mischievously, conveying, I hope, that their anger is not directed at me, not yet. The embraces are also a calculation; a few yards away, snubbed but apparently unconcerned, Osvaldo has picked at his meal and is dabbing his thin mouth with a handkerchief.
“So, would you like to view the cattle project?” Don Faustino considers we might abandon the meeting for a while.
“Is it far?”
“No, my house is very near.”
For every ploughed field we pass, a half-dozen lie fallow. Disuse, misuse, overuse, abuse? Faustino can’t or won’t tell me. He’s not interesting in anything except a curious brick building at the top of the hill. Once inside, he shoos his wife and teenage daughters away and presents me to the muscle-bound bull.
A spaceous stable for the animal. Nice, but wasn’t his steroid majesty supposed to be passed around the community, impregnating the lucky cows along the way?
“You can’t trust the others to take proper care. Anyway, it’s more convenient for them to bring their cows here.” Faustino offers his prize a tuft of hay, unashamed of the privilege he’s amassed like pollen on the bee’s knees.
“There must be quite a waiting list. Who’s next in line?”
“My brother-in-law is and then a cousin.”
“So how much will you be charging, then?” It just spurts out, semen-style, before I realize the implicit insult.
Not an eyelid bats; “Less to my family than to the neighbours.”
At the back of my my mind I hear Ana stating only yesterday: “In every community, our projects make existing divisions worse.” And what a load of bull this project is, especially considering that a test-tube of semen could do a more efficient job than this hunk of pre-hamburger. But that would lack the visibility so appreciated by funders.
The beast in question ruminates for a while, farts and then vomits. The hills are alive with the sound of moo-sick and the lakeside meeting suddenly seems more wholesome. I insist on returning before Faustino’s wife gets to showing off the house, the tv and her grain-store.
The meeting continues. Let’s give him credit, Osvaldo might be frail but he has stamina. Still out there, pointing fingers at the debtors we’ve created. Smart too, because the community are compelled by pride and tradition to work together. Osvaldo, exploiting their disharmony, is now firmly in control immune to the contempt he’s generating.
Elvira, however, has settled in with the women where, though her city clothes look palid among the brilliant reds and greens and blues, she’s clearly at ease. A Quechua herself from the central highlands, she speaks some Aymara too. When I sit next to her, the señoras, scandalized and a little thrilled, scatter. Sorry m’dears, didn’t foresee a breach of etiquette in crossing the gender-lines
“How’s the mood?” I enquire.
“Taking into account how he’s insulting them, not too bad.” She feeds a banana to her little boy. “If the man would just stop lecturing and listen instead, maybe we’d find some solutions.”
“Any decisions?” Silly me, obviously not. She directs my gaze to the eastern sky above the cordillera mountain range.
“Have you noticed what’s happening over there?”
So used to blue, blue skies, the procession of sunny days and cold nights of the Andean winter, I indeed haven’t registered the pencil-thin streak of grey which is spreading from the mountains and advancing towards us.
“Snow on the way,” warns Luis our driver. Now where has he sprung from? “It can happen very suddenly,” he adds. As the driver he’s anxious to be heading back from Kotapata. Foolishly, I’m quite pleased at any change which will amount to weather as I understand the term.
The Kotapatans, highly tuned to their lake and its caprices, must be aware of the approaching blizzard. Since yesterday, they’ve probably been observing subtle changes in the flight-patterns of wild ducks or the habits of the snails hiding in the reed-beds. Oh yes, they hey know. But we are to be punished for inflicting ourselves on the community. To reach safety, first we must endure the storm and learn from the elements – how appropriately Shakespearean.
Mid-afternoon, when the meeting should be approaching its natural end, our obvious glances skywards simply provoke further questions, requiring Osvaldo to clarify details. Hand after hand is raised in the crowd until sombre clouds are racing overhead, already spitting icy pellets. Only then do the leaders halt the session and the communards dash, whooping, on bicycles for the shelter of their cottages. The first heavy drops, drumbeats of farewell to the drought, thud singly on the compacted earth which within minutes coalesces into mud.
Don Alejandro, a traditional healer, a yatiri, and his two friends jump on the back of the Toyota, lucky they do, and rig up a flapping sheet of plastic (we’ve brought no tarp). Faustino has stayed to tend his possessions. I’m thinking, what a relief to be in the cab, out of the cold, on our way.
The irony. You could choose almost any road in Bolivia at random and be fairly confident of a bumpy, slow ride. But not the route from the Lake to the Alto, a favorite little excursion for visiting dignitaries, which has been recently and needlessly resurfaced in satin-smooth asphalt. This stretch of modern highway proves tempting, then treacherous, Luis’s undoing. A chauffeur with no experience of driving at speed in icy rain and we’re heading for a ditch and a night in the tempest on our own blasted heath
With rapid-eye-movement, consider this; driven rain matching the angle of the Toyota, its wheel probably buckled. The three campesinos and I shoving against the tail-gate, Luis straining at the cabin door. We are sprayed with mud and drenched. Medicine-man Alejandro distributes drams of cane-alcohol in a bottletop while chanting a weird Aymara plain-song.
Elvira and child are sheltering under a blanket and the plastic sheet. Osvaldo, muffled, shivering, has refused to leave the cabin, pitting his weight against our best efforts as he’s done all day. Only a fool would have messed with the Kotapata folk at the meeting today. And in Osvaldo we have a prize donkey, acting like an ass and talking through his own, though we’ve been included in the punishment, rightly cast as the office gang.
On this increasingly desperate night, the sleet will crystallize to snow. Rescue, assistance, even a distant light in some window, are out of the question.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Chapter 5

Apologies for the delay, people. Well, someone might be reading this. Exam-marking is turning my brain into muesli, causing my eyeballs to bounce and my toes to droop. Best not to dwell on this. If anyone wants me to speed up the chapters, I'd be happy to take that on board: just post a comment below. TTFN

Chapter 5
Upside, Downtown

I intercept Edmundo as he’s striding towards his car and have to raise my voice over the clamour of the other petitioners who are waving documents and tugging at his sleeve. The boss is gallantly shepherding executive secretary Pamela through the crowd and into the front passenger-seat of his Trail Blazer de luxe; he indicating that I hop in the back. Faces press against the windows like fish in an aquarium. The leather upholstery is cool on the skin.
“So, what’s the problem?” he says, looking back over his shoulder, as he revs the engine and sounds the horn (onus on the throng to clear a path).
“My visa’s expiring.” Expirar, espirar? The Spanish sounds wrong. “It’s run out?” He ha corrido afuera? That’s much worse, too literal. Edmundo has a way of making those around him uncomfortable - I’m not immune.
He finally concentrates on the road ahead, more to protect the car’s bodywork, I suspect, than for the welfare of the people. “I have a contact in the Ministry,” he says, “who’ll regularize your situation. Take Ana.”
And I’m ejected before we hit the main avenue.
Pamela’s hand is on his knee.

Nice car.Edmundo’s driving. But mere mortals have to get downtown on what’s available. The bus is interesting. A beast of burden, it jerks and halts, taking the descent slowly, wonderful for observation, low on comfort. The rules of combat allow for elbowing, if you shout permiso first and smile sweetly. Watch your wallet, wipe the muddy window for an amazing view, enjoy the ride. Trouble is, it takes the Old Road, takes an eternity. So Ana and I swap to a minibus.
We’re travelling in a sardine-can converted into a torpedo, but el autopista, the motorway, is fast when not blocked. Leaving the Ceja behind, approaching the edge. Past the privatized toll-booths and onto the autopista itself which sweeps around the canyon’s rim, almost a complete circuit, before coiling inwards to the city-centre. The little coronel had this sleek masterpiece laid in the ‘70s on the back of foreign loans, still unrepaid. Per kilometer, it is said to be the most expensive road in the world. Quite an impressive trip; dictators know how to stage a show.
Oh linda La Paz, cradled and capped by a snowy peak the gods have painted there for effect “Mount Illimani,” Ana murmurs. So impressive is the city, so compact and pure from a distance, one can easily overlook a certain anaemic quality, until the view collapses into the particular. Then, slapdash brickwork hints at messy lives. One notes a filthy river and the cracks in the extravagant motorway.
. I point to a cluster of crosses along the roadside.. “What are they?”
“Accidents,” Ana explains with a shrug. “We’re not used to fast driving yet.”
Nor to foreign volunteers, it would seem. “When we’re at the Ministry, shall I tell them about the job?”
“This government is very nationalistic. They don’t like meddling gringos.”
“So, I’m a tourist.”
“Don’t know, Jaime. You’d probably have to keep renewing your visa.”
Typical of Edmundo, sending this woman who’s neither competent nor confident in the face of officialdom? For that matter, why hasn’t home-office spared a thought about my status in Bolivia?.
“You could always pretend you’re a technical expert.”
“Pretend! Muchas gracias, amiga.”
“Admit it, Jaime. You’re enthusiastic – but as far as skills go.............”
Ana’s harsh words hurt because they’re true.
Our minibus drops us at a palatial beer-factory. I march ahead of her, gloomy, my depression unrelieved by a first sight of the city-centre. Main street, el Prado (I look it up in the pocket dictionary – pradera, meadow), has precious little green among the spewing vehicles, ugly office-blocks, coffee-houses, malls, banks, stores, boutiques and yet more offices.
Kids in reversed baseball-caps race along their boring promenade. Businessmen and euro-clone women gabbling into their cell-phones. These winners of the cultural lottery all ignore the vendors crouched at knee-level offering up their wares. Yes, the Prado is the main drag of La Paz - in name and in attitude.
My dark mood worsens at the Immigration Ministry’s splendid building, a confiscated bank, where shirt-sleeved hustlers openly negotiate with the queuing public. Between the columns and the arches, a handful of clerks sit at rickety desks, chatter and occasionally stamp documents.
The ‘Foreign Residents’ Registry’ operates upstairs, above the common horde. To reach it, we must explain our visit to a surly policewoman posing as secretary. She dawdles ten minutes before announcing us. Her boss adds another twenty to the purgatory, while Ana fidgets and I wait bored, but rapidly somewhat amused.
Our insignificance established, we’re permitted to enter the sanctum. On the wall, a colour photo of el coronelito, benign serial murderer, smiles down on us like a favorite uncle.
The uniformed official chooses one seal from many and frowns at it. “So, Sr.Estalkhair, (Spanish doesn’t recognize words that begin with the letter ‘s’) how may I help you?” He’s thin, almost dainty, seems poised to launch into a tango, if it weren’t for the paperwork at his side. His bushy moustache also weighs him down.
Best option, straight talking.
“I work with an organization in the Alto.”
“I see. In what capacity?” He has picked up a gold-plated pen.
When I tell him, the eyes shade a shade. “This is extremely serious. You have entered the country illegally on a tourist visa with the clear intention of taking up an appointment in a sensitive area of ......” etc.
Soft tones acquire an edge; manicured fingers tap. He directs a reverent glance up at the image of his protector, then lays the golden pen at a precise angle across a blank sheet of paper and asks Ana for further details, which she gives hesitantly.
“You’ll need to register with the Interior Ministry.”
Shit -fingerprints, mugshots, inquiries, an infinity of documents. Ana has gone pale. “Your position goes against all the regulations governing....... Where did you say you were from? ....... ah, London ...... north London? …… know Hi-bree?”
Please, don’t let him be an Arsenal fan, not one of those arrogant bastards. I’m with the small fry of the footballing world, the Leyton Orients and Hartlepools, where survival is the game. Hey-ho, inevitably, our friend was at language school in Islington some 25 years ago and he does support Arsenal. The date is interesting; since it places him in the little coronel’s first regime; a privileged son, perhaps, of some sub-official (or coordinator?) treated to a scholarship.
Ecstatic at the wondrous coincidence, he’s moved to practise an English, not so much broken as crumbling. We swap memories of underground stations, pubs and parks. I decide to show a lively interest in the destiny of the Arsenal team. Ana looks on, disbelieving, as the official stamps a 90-day extension in my passport and urges me to join any international organization registered at the Foreign Ministry. He accompanies us, graceful as a bullfighter, out of his office, then reconsiders and calls Ana back for a private conference.
Leaving the building, her turn to be depressed, though the antenna’s still working. “How can you be sure they’re following us? ” I whisper once inside the post-office. “Years of experience,” she replies. “The dark glasses and shiny shoes, believe me.”
She reasserts control, taking us walkabout, up through the cobbled, winding market areas that cling to the flanks of the canyon. Merchandise everywhere, and I’m not talking vegetables, fruit or grain, though they abound. This is La Paz, contraband city. A bowler-hatted woman squats among computer equipment, advising her client on installation and maintenance. No taxes, no receipts, no guarantee. I’m smiling now.
Pushing on upwards, we’ve both recovered our spirits. Downtown does not represent the feel and character of this city. You have to climb to the barrios and, skirting the mudholes and drunks, the heaps of trash scoured by people and dogs, stand on this little bridge. In La Paz, the poorer you are, the higher you live, the better the view, contrary to so many other cities. Truly, La Paz is an upside-down town.
I’m smoking an Astoria.cigarette, pure tobacco, goes with the altitude, and I’m smiling now.
Across the bowl of the city to the east, peek the peaks, behind them hidden somewhere, jungle. Around me, the flanks of the city rise like the tiers of a football stadium, neighbourhoods scrambling to the top. The Alto stretches hidden beyond the rim.
Ana points to the right where the mouth of the horseshoe closes and the city falls away like sediment down a drain. “ La zona sur - allá viven los ricos,” she says. One day I’ll see it for myself, South Zone where the rich, the powerful and the professionally corrupt live in opulent isolation, attended by their servants.
But here on their own patch, real paceños thrive. The Buenos Aires is a broad avenue that runs parallel to the Prado, far above it, a higher education. We can hardly wade through the mass of vendors seated on the pavement, yet the crush demands attention as ui discover when I carelessly upset a stack of tuna-cans. The owner fires a burst of indignant Aymara and she’s not going to be placated by my apology.
Ana chuckles. “C’mon, clumsy. They’ve sent for the police, she wants money off the raffluent gringo who attacked her.” Hilarious for Ana, precarious for me. Off the Buenos Aires, through a labyrinth of ascending alleys and passageways she drags me. “Cheer up. I’ve brought you here to visit an old friend, a comrade of Che’s.”
“And did Che have any Bolivian comrades? ” I reply maybe too cleverly
She’s knows what I’m referring to. “Just when I trust you enough to meet Don Mario, you’re gonna let your mouth run away with you. Dignidad, Jaime, y respeto, por favor.”
The stairwell of the lodgings is drenched in odours of urine and cooking. Sticky stains decorate the corridors. Mario opens the door to his room warily. He is old, has glasses thick enough to weld by, limps, coughs into a soiled handerchief while his posters of historic struggles stare down at us accusingly.
Despite the coffee, our conversation lags, until Mario turns, the eyes swimming blankly and comments, “Británico, eh? Still drug-trafficking?”
Thank goodness I’ve studied the history that’s usually omitted from the syllabus. “Ah, the Opium Wars,” I reply, thereby passing the test and when I add, “But now we’re into gun-running,” Mario relaxes. We converse, that is, Mario lectures late into the evening. Che is mentioned just once, but it’s a great anecdote; how he arrived in La Paz soon after the revolution of ’52, a politically naive young man writing his motorcycle diaries, though the bike had already been abandoned.
“A revolution in name only,” Mario hastens to explains. “One visit from Eisenhower’s brother tangled ‘em up. Los carajos de siempre - in control to this day.”
But when Che hit town, the scene was pretty impressive, with armed peasant militias parading the streets and idealists returning land-titles to the rural communities. “Never met him in ‘52, but he might’ve seen me. I could really harangue in those days.” Still can, I don’t doubt. Che, however, was a very junior participant but listened to the debates, even visited mines and the tropical valleys of the Yungas.
How to get involved? Finally Che, the truant third-year medical student, volunteered at the ministry in charge of redistributing land. The bulk of the work was handled by subordinates, very few claimants personally reaching the inner sanctum. But those peasant leaders who did, were fumigated with DDT first to prevent them infecting the minister. Che took one look at the procedure and walked out, on his way to another failed revolution in Guatemala and the fateful rendevous with Fidel in a Mexican jail.
So the story goes and Mario tells it with gusto. His-story, myth universe.
“Un soñador, a dreamer but, caramba, he knew how to organize, if only we’d given him the chance.” And then no amount of coaxing will start Mario reminiscing again. Instead, he berates us for working at Copcap, collaborationism he calls it “Lend money and confuse the masses, just like the Yankees did to our revolution. Tying us up in credits and loans, the same old capitalist game.”
“Unfair,” Anna interjects. “Maybe we don’t make much difference, but the people are organizing and we support the process.” Not staring at his damaged eyes, not stirring my over-sugared coffee. Mario has the spark of a radical student, straight out of Dostoyevsky, unless the pervasive smell of cabbage-soup is influencing my judgement. Behind the rheumy gaze, there is steel.
“I’m surprised at you, Ana,” he continues, “promoting such disorganization. And you, joven, are a tourist come to observe our poverty and gloat. As for that Edmundo Crespo fellow, I could tell you a few things about his past that would make your flesh creep, por ejemplo when he...............”
At which juncture, Ana changes the topic. I don’t know why she’s shielding Edgar but Mario, the old campaigner, can take a hint and retreats totally within himself. The conversation has died. Within a few minutes we’re collecting our jackets and leaving.
Now that night has erased that panoramic view, the Buenos Aires comes into its own. Heaving crowds flow along the people’s thoroughfare. With so many alteños making the return trip home, the traffic is snarled and snarling. Poor choice, Ana, hopping into a mini-bus. They’re nifty vehicles, if a little fragile, but we’re stuck on el camino viejo, the old road, enviously watching the vehicles speeding up the colonel’s motorway nearby.
At least, I tell myself, I’m experiencing the trials of tens of thousands who commute daily to the wonderland downtown. True, the city lights twinkle pleasantly, but the journey distends itself like a diver being hauled from the depths of a thick ocean to avoid the bends. One hour and a half to the Ceja and the music doesn’t help either - jolly, monotonous, creepy. “Cumbia,” Ana advises. “All the rage, awful.” Taking advantage, she cuddles up.
In the Ceja, we change transport at a spaghetti junction, pass through a mayhem of vehicles and cops blowing on shrill whistles. When I finally collapse onto my unfriendly bed, I’m shattered, head pounding.
Much as I’ve enjoyed Mario’s tirade, I prefer the plain. Below is the pits, really.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

At last, chapter 4

Hi y'all, how's it hangin? Anyhoo, over the past week I went to the great literary festival in Hay (why?) of which someone remarked, "What is that? Some kind of sandwich?" with the express purpose of flogging this book to anyone and sundry I may meet. Fat chance. Not even a slighly podgy chance. Hay is strictly for established literary success. Damn. But we had great fun sitting on the bench, playin' with the pencils... and spotted a few authors and other celebrities, got a few books signed, even met Shaun the sheep, which the kids loved. The most amazing thing was this feeling of being surrounded on all sides by people just like me and my friends. I have never felt so in-place, as opposed to out-of-place: Guardian readers all over, the place was just swarming with wooly liberals, and everywhere you looked someone was making an unconventional fashion statement. Makes you proud to be a misfit! Ok, stop that self-indulgent nonsens. Here's the next chapter.

Chapter 4

The first task each day is to keep Doña Asunta, my caretaker, at arm’s length. Her idea of attention is a cooked breakfast; mine, an early morning cigarette. Then she’ll infuriate me by sweeping, or rather rearranging, the dust in the yard. How she spends the rest of the day is unclear, though I sometimes surprise her grasping an ancient pickaxe. Today, I must escape quickly. I have permission to roam, under escort of course.
Ana’s my guide and I need her. Most of the Copcap groups are scattered about the Alto, some accessible, others camouflaged like reclusive nesting birds. I have visited her house several times, but usually end up lost, trekking the grids, a fly on a Mondrian painting. She claims the route is simple, 5 blocks up, 3 blocks down. Am I meant to take that seriously? The Alto is flat.
Hardly any landmarks in these uncharted streets. And the numbers painted on the doors - 300, 72, 85, 150, 10 - are not random, they’re perverse. Still, Ana and family are known throughout their neighbourhood, I can make enquiries - in vain. Cómo? Qué?, reply the passers-by. Is it my accent or my presence that flusters them?
Eventually, I do stumble onto the evangelical hut. To its left is that particular pothole, fascinatingly full of corrosive green sludge even in the dry spell. The Choque clan live over by that corner.
A small, friendly face answers my knock, immediately followed by two frenzied dogs. One hiss from the small child sends them scampering to their kennels. Doña Rosa, the matriarch herself, ushers me in, offers me another breakfast; qué rico, coffee in the winter-morning sun. She’s already immersed in the tasks that will carry her through the day, the cooking, washing, dispensing of wisdom and order in this bustling household.
Given the number of adults present, there’s an implausible quantity of offspring, and I’ve yet to discover which are Ana’s. Around the yard, school-aged kids are being scrubbed, while toddlers crawl round the stone-piles. The teenage element sleeps on till lunchtime, claiming to have afternoon classes. Ha! They’re going to abscond to the computer-game arcades which have sprouted in the Alto.
Of the assorted family members cloistered in this compound, only Ana seems to contribute any regular income. One son, Diego, is a sordid drunk; that’s probably his wife shielding her bruised face. The eldest son, Pancho, is (shush!) mysteriously absent and idolized. Reticence abounds. Even Doña Rosa is acting mysteriously today. She’s quizzing me on my dreams but won’t say why.
Well, the schoolkids are despatched immaculate in white lab-coats, and Ana has gathered all her papers, so we can start walking towards today’s group, sorry, ‘productive unit’ in Oswald-speak. According to the list, we’re due to visit the Atipiris knitters and spinners.
In the Alto, straight lines may rule but they give no sense of direction. Bleached under an unrelenting sun, the paths intersect and diverge. We’re two figures leaning into the steady wind, steering through dusty neighbourhoods.
“So, any idea where we are, Ana?”
“Back a block is Cosmos ’78.” She points to a junction of nondescript streets. “At the moment we’re in San Luis. It becomes Cosmos ‘79 a little further on.” Stones, earth, brick and sky. I see no possible difference. “Not too far from the Atipiris,” she adds for my comfort.
“Up or down?” I jokingly ask.
“Up,” is her supposedly serious response.
The houses are humbler now, single storey, no plasterwork. Next to an unfinished wall, we rest listening to bird-song, and watch a husband and wife manufacture adobes. They shovel the mud, adding straw for strength, then tread the mix, barefoot, into brick-sized moulds. Over and over. A black dog signs its pawprint on the adobes already lined out to dry. Ana shares coca, I offer cigarettes to the adobe-makers, then on we plod.
Soon I’m out of breath and.streaked in sweat. This sector is quiet. A stray bus ploughs by, raising a cloud of dust that settles slowly, a fair portion of it down my throat, which even a bottle of local fizzy pop can’t unblock. Ana uses the interlude to brief me.
“OK, first, the introductions. But don’t give them your life-history. The señoras already know about you.”
“All about me?”
“You’ve been a topic of conversation since you arrived.”
“I should resent that.”
“No, you will accept the opportunity.”
“For what?”
“Convincing them to implement their project as soon as possible.”
“Give a talk? In Spanish? I don’t know what to say.”
“Then why have you come? Are you sightseeing?”
No, I’m scared. Only Julio’s sudden arrival prevents me confessing my terror.
The lissome agricultural student is also heading towards the Atipiris. They’re considering a greenhouse, offshoot of the new water supply achieved entirely through their own efforts. Not a Copcap project, you understand.
“Hi Julio, I’m very glad to see you again.” He takes the hand I’ve offered in a nice, steady grip, but then turns to Ana. Can’t blame them for excluding me. They’re comrades, I’m an unknown quantity.

Wow! I can only write about the Atipiris, ‘Strivers’ in the Aymara language, in terms of the greatest respect. Two small houses knocked together form the group’s workspace. As we enter, the women are absorbed in preparing an order of sweaters and scarves. The room throbs with their energy, talk and laughter.
Some wear traditional dress, the skirt called pollera and a shawl, those wonderful bowlers topping the outfit. Others are in plain clothes, convenient, washable and cheap. If the choice indicates an attitude, I don’t get it; the women mingle.
I recognize the president of the group, Doña Teofila (she’s directorio), pencil stub in fist, noting down details on the cover of an exercise book. Next to her, a haggard woman in faded trousers distributes balls of wool. A mother in pollera is running a frayed measuring-tape over some lovely grey and white jumpers. The toddler she carries on her back repeatedly dislodges her bowler hat and each time another kid, one of the many, retrieves it, hands it back. The spinners spin, knitters knit, and, dammit, look, they’re applauding us.
Ana’s instructions are to shake every hand, though I forget whether to move clockwise or anti-clockwise around the room. Teofila makes the formal introduction;
“Young Jaime has come from overseas to help us. Do you have any questions for him?” Fielding the usual enquiries - yes, single, glad to be here, very impressed, thank you. By now I have the replies off pat. “Jaime’s going to concentrate on getting the projects working well,” causes an uproar.
Why can’t we start now? What did the Directory decide about our case? When’s the office going to give us our money? I’ve no idea what to respond. Their project money entrances them like the stub of a lucky lottery ticket.
When Ana intervenes, I begin to understand her importance to No-one else could do the job. The bosses inhabit another universe; the directorio don’t have her university training; joven Jaime is a tourist yet.
“Shouldn’t we just take a share of the money each and go and buy things?” suggests one lady in yellow slacks. Her neighbour shares the same opinion; “We could buy soap powder from the Peruvians at the border. Fetches a good price on the streets, señorita.”
“But, Margarita, just consider.” (She knows all the people in that room by name, can talk to them in Quechua, Aymara and Spanish). Ana skillfully draws them into seeing how the soap-scheme will create winners and losers.
“Think of something that might benefit all of you,” she urges.
“Knitting machines. We’d work much faster.”
Doña Teofila shoots down that proposal: “The money would cover seventeen machines. What are the rest of us to do?”
“We could take turns.”
Ana’s subtler. She praises their tradition of hand-knitting. “Let’s stick with what we know,” she says and her inclusive ‘we’ is grudgingly accepted, though the group must know she hasn’t the authority to force decisions on them. I’ve already heard her say three or four times today, “Sorry, but the office has blocked that one.”
The debate continues. I’m tongue-tied and content to let it flow. Forty-two courageous women on the outer reaches of our galaxy, education meagre, prospects low, enthusiasm extraordinary.
No wonder the Atipiris attract me. You’ll recall I’d been teaching at the Leaside Comprehensive. It was a grim madhouse of broken glass and sombre hatred. On a normal day, I could expect knives and razors, or apathy, if my luck held. During four years, the one intelligent student in all my classes, just one, young Leo from Walthamstow, bright as a quasar and the source of endless problems..
So, you can imagine, the dignity and calm vitality of the Atipiris catch me quite unprepared. Actually though, these women are as sharp as any east-end Londoners. They enlist my help with the greenhouse, which isn’t what I came for. And the discussion, Ana subsequently tells me, was mostly a re-run of month-old issues for my benefit. There’s a faction in the group of relocated mining folk, truculent and combatative, who want my support in the office. OK, so I fall right in. Won’t be the last time.

“Nice of you to offer,” comments Julio during the hike homewards. Slanting rays of sun bronze the adobe walls. “We can buy the materials from the Sunday market and store them at your house.” He launches into the esoterics of greenhouse construction, axis, shade, ventilation, frost protection .......... hold it, son. I’m just a willing pair of hands in this affair. I accept because it means collaborating with you, in shirt-sleeves.
“Plants take us closer to nature,” he’s spouting, reminding me of my Mum’s nonsense. I’ll admit to being moulded by her books, her record collection and, above all, her choice of recreational drugs. But when Joanne used to sermonize about getting back to the land, I’d tell her gardening has nothing to do with nature - it is gross interference.
As if to underscore my point, a gigantic funnel of dust appears at the corner of the street. It pin-balls off the walls and bears down on us, whirling plastic bags and urban debris.
Ana holds up her right hand, muttering some incantation, and sends the baby tornado shying away.
“How did you manage that?” I gasp.
“It’s an old trick.”
“Ana, I’m truly surprised that you repeat those superstitions,” Julio shouts above the din. Mark this from the lad who’s just been peddling the ‘spirit of the earth’.
“They work whether I believe in them or not,” replies Ana triumphantly. Two blocks away, the dust-devil has raised a tin-roof into the air, hurled it scything above us like a mad propeller. Now that’s what I’d call a force of nature.
Ana escorts me to my door, knowing that otherwise I might wander around lost till next morning. Doña Asunta is waiting in the living-room (I let her move in last week), cross-legged on the floor by the throbbing tv screen, rapt and rapturous before her favorite tele-novela. In forays to the kitchen during the adverts, she has prepared a mess (literally) of noodles. I carry the plate upstairs to my bilious yellow bedroom where a naked bulb and a spider keep me company. The longer I stay in this house, the more unlived in it feels.
But I’ll sleep content tonight. While my pals in London troop optionless to the pub, I’m here on this exotic plain, two and a half miles high, and finally about to get dirt under my fingernails.