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 voice.is 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.