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.

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