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.
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.”
“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 Copropac.org. 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.