Righto, we're back. Been a long week: daughter had operation on leg, everything in mess, sister and son visiting. That sounds so utterly humdrum and domestic, makes you want to yawn. Why don't I have an exciting reason for not putting a chapter here last week? Say, I was arrested and questioned for 48 hours because I made a joke in poor taste about bombs and airports? Or the homework ate my dog... Anyway, to make it up to you deers, here's two chapters in one go. Don't read it all at once, though!
Nice Day at the Orifice.
I’ve installed a public-relations desk on the ground-floor. The bowler-hats, rustic suits and wailing bundles have arrived early today,. They’re waiting for me with the patience of passengers at a bus depot, but the buzz of conversation suddenly halts when Osvaldo appears on the stairs.
The levels of the Copcap building don’t only define status, that would be too yawningly normal; they reflect degrees of blame. The overnight snow has barely turned to sludge and Osvaldo’s plotting revenge for yesterday’s debacle. He saunters up to my desk. A surprise to see him. On other occasions, he’d send a messenger but right nowhe prefers to sneeze, red-eyed, into my face.
“Your presence is required on the top-floor.”
I stall and instruct my assistant, Miguel. “Please carry on.” Fine lad, Miguelito. School leaver, yet to enter university. Very willing. A torrent of Aymara detains me. The señora could be middle-aged, except for the seven young children.
“What’s her problem, Miguel?”
“This is Doña Petrona. She claims that the money the group gave her to buy seeds, well, her husband has taken it.” So, OK, better he takes the money than runs off with another woman - oh, that too. She splutters through the story again, and starts crying at open-floodgate rate.
Precisely what Ana warned me against when I decided to move down from my cubicle on the second-floor. “Why, Jaime? All you’re going to hear are family troubles which you’ll then be expected to resolve. Can you?” And clearly, Doña Petrona’s affairs are none of my business. The woman is pleading to me as she might prostrate herself before a statue of San Judas Taddeus, patron saint of lost causes - por favor, señor, please intercede - my life, the tangle.
Osvaldo, who has halted on the stairs to digest this little tableau, clears his throat. He can’t decide whether to wait or slink back up. He’s fine addressing an audience, but face-to-face lacks the common touch.. I snap back, “Ya voy, directamente”. In Spanish you have to say ‘going’ when you mean ‘coming’, an apt confusion given my current lack of direction.
Doña Petrona’s seeds are not the immediate concern. I’m seeking a pattern. Why she was ever given cash, what rules of procedure, if any, are being followed, how does Copcap muddle along? Another interview, further clues. Miguel will dry her eyes, he has that skill. Sorry to seem heartless, but I can’t deal with so much emotion.
A backward glance at the scene. Apart from the monthly directors’ meeting, ground level is essentially about biding time Hard benches flank the hospital-green walls, on which posters of seminars unattended and health campaigns unheeded curl and fade. In the curtainless room, the morning sunlight is stark and dazzling. A chill draught blows through the entrance. Add a rough surface of cold cement and you can see how we welcome our membership.
Don’t get me wrong; there are certain facilities such as the toilets, where sound advice on hygiene is pinned to the wall, even though paper is not provided and stagnant water has to be ladled from a barrel. Well, all the Copcap projects claim to promote independence. This reception-area allows for plenty of practice
Doors do lead off to smaller rooms that Elvira and Ana use to conduct their private business. And in the yard there’s an outhouse, called a workshop, stacked with fleeces and bags of grain. But only staff are permitted upstairs, whence funds flow. Eyes are watching as I walk towards higher ground.
“Siga adelante, Miguel,” I call back - carry on collating.
On the middle-floor, a series of cubicles clutter either side of the dark corridor. Seven employees of middle rank share the inconvenience of a single telephone and a computer, leading to frayed nerves, I’m afraid. Edgar probably planned it thus to keep the tension tight. The absence of soundproofing also thwarts alliances.
I pop into Ana’s cubicle for a pre-meeting conference. She’s calm, businesslike, writing to avoid talking, yesterday wasn’t her misadventure. A desk and a visitor’s chair are all that four square metres of cubby-hole can contain and the chair is taken by Elvira, snappy as an alligator. I’m the prey.
“Why didn’t you participate more, Jaime?” (I was scared). “Your role is vital. I don’t possess the background for it.”
Ana’s also buck-passing: “The uncertainties in the projects are affecting us all.”
“What’s our approach, then?” I ask.
“We let him talk,” says Ana, meaning Edgar. Ana treats hierarchy seriously, she’s caught in the vertical hold.
Elvira has a similar strategy. “Let’s see what kind of a mood he’s in.”
I’m still trying to comprehend the subtleties of the Copcap ant-hill. Far as I understand, the statutes state that the organization is owned by its members, grass-roots socios, whose sovereign voice can be heard on a monthly basis at el directorio. Fine, so far. The professional staff merely guide los socios through the maze of agencies and funders. Likewise clear.
In truth, only two classes of being exist at Copcap, overlords and underlings. The former emit orders from their office suites, the latter scurry to obey in chilly workshops. Ana some how falls between the two; she is an overseer, she has official rank, promotora. But does she promote the interests of the professionals or the members? Elvira is directorio. Neither woman can afford to lose her job. I’m the one with relative freedom.
We listen to the melt-off splashing from the roof. No drainpipes in the Alto, no plan amongst us three. I shrug a smile (mix me a metaphor, Jim).
A naturalist observing the Copcap habitat would note how the floors progress from bare concrete to tatty remnants to plush carpeting on the heights. Above, the air suddenly becomes rarified. Pamela is stationed behind a mahogany desk that could fit seven of us lower beings. Stressed by her executive labours, she’s varnishing her nails, so confident of her position (the daily ride from Edgar, and that’s his story), she doesn’t bother to hide the kit. This level beeps and hums, an electronic cathedral. There isn’t a sign which reads, “Caution; professionals deliberating for the benefit of humanity.” It’s not necessary.
We’re ordered to enter. Able leaders delight in being unpredictable, the better to unbalance followers or foes. And so Edmundo is affable this morning, ominously friendly.
“Come on in. Please make yourselves comfortable.” He steadies his girth on the swivel-seat, checks a single sheet of paper and, oh no, smiles. “Such bad luck to get caught in a storm. Osvaldo, the informant, has informed. “So, how did the meeting go?” At this barbed inquiry, he smoothes his neat beard.
Elvira accepts the bait: “The visit was satisfactory.”
He strikes. “A visit, Doña Elvira, is something you pay to an aunt on Sundays. This was work, I must remind you. It’s truly surprising how much you’ve all lost control of these ventures. As if our policy for managing the productive units weren’t extremely simple.”
Ana has receded into the mahogany panelling, hoping to camouflage herself from the cobra. Edmundo savours the women’s discomfort before turning on me.
“I understand you’ve become involved in building the Atipiris greenhouse,” which I cheerfully admit. “But I don’t recall that as one of your functions. You know, Jaime, an officer does not peel potatoes. And as for that ridiculous post you’ve set up in the conference room.” Ah, so that’s its official name. “What is the point? These efforts at popularity don’t amount to actual work.”
His masterstroke: “I’d appreciate your opinion, compañeras?” - this may be the first occasion he’s stooped to ask.
“I attempted to dissuade him,” squirms the one.
“He’s not making the best use of his time,” the other confirms.
Tranquilo, I don’t consider this betrayal, because I haven’t required their loyalty.
“I suggest,” intones Edmundo, “that you take these reports,” stretching back until the blubber quivers, “and study them from the beginning.” He points a chubby finger at the door. The real staff-meeting will commence once I’ve staggered past a sniggering Pamela like a waiter with a tower of greasy plates, the metal edges of the files biting into my brow. Bet the info isn’t in here anyway.
Osvaldo is a keen enforcer of tobacco-free work-zones. There’s no possibility of quick Astoria down in this cubicle, though I’m dying for one. The yard is impossible; downstairs, a vortex of needs would suck me in. So, taking care not to slip, it’s time for the contortionist act. Welcome to the smoke-artist, Leonardo-da-window. What the neighbours must think of the new gringo.
Despite yesterday’s storm, the street smells are neither sweet nor fresh. A foetid moisture is loose, predictions of contagion tingle my nose. The damp has penetrated this room too. We could do with parquet flooring but luxury ends at the gates of Fort Pamela.
Five, ten minutes brooding. Dammit, let’s open these files.
Edmundo forgets that reports do not faze me. Until recently I was a teacher, that is, a trained bureaucrat with a degree and a thick skin.. I can read between as many lines as he throws at me. Undercurrents of justification, I swim right through them, ha!
It’s cleverly done. See - groups change names, activities swap focus, personnel are replaced, committees reconvene. The dregs of each proposal leach into the next. False labeling on racks of adulterated wine, and here comes joven Jaime, the latest dupe.
Drip and drip past the window, past my lunch-hour, on a trail of funding submissions that submit to no-one, through a thicket of fictitious reports, into a jungle of creative appraisals. The cheek of it.
By late afternoon, when I descend to the reception area, conference room, base camp, whatever, I’m as sour as the weather. The last of the day’s supplicants are shuffling off into the fog, disappointed. Don’t worry; tomorrow will dawn bright and clear
Echoes of the System
In fact, whatever happened to the winter? Late June, and apart from the snowstorm that has already melted, no sign of extreme weather. Andean winter is the dry season, a fact which I consider contrary and unsettling, like climbing a low mountain or crossing a drenched desert. Day after day, the sun rises, arches over a sky of sheer blue, burns without warmth, sets.
The nights,however, do freeze, so cold that stones crack Mama Rosa claims, though I’ve yet to hear them popping. It’s certainly chilly enough this evening and I’m grateful for the bonfire, for the alcohol-laced tea. Fires glow along the street, celebrating San Juán and the Aymara New Year. On this one occasion, the confining walls of Alto family life are left behind. Throughout the altiplano, night shimmers red for the winter solstice.
We are fortunate to enjoy this celebration unmolested. In downtown La Paz, all fires are banned. “The Mayor says it’s uneco-eco-logi-cal,” a nephew informs me, chewing on the strange word. Ana refills the youngster’s cup.
“Pero es absurdo.” Julio, fueled by the brandy-tea, has leapt up. “As an ecologist I should know! A few bonfires aren’t going to harm the environment.”
Kettle poised, Ana doubts. “I’m of the opinion we could sacrifice these damaging customs. Igniting tyres, well, that’s really noxious. And the smoke’ll be so thick tomorrow in La Paz, it chokes - you’ve seen it before.”
“Yes, but one night of fiesta is not the problem,” insists Julio. “San Juán is our tradition. And the Mayor’s a hypocrite. The ban is merely to distract us from real environmental issues.” I do so love it when Bolivians get righteously eloquent, the phrases they can string together, but the lad’s right; a poisoned river flows past the beer-factory, La Paz has no park worthy of the name, and those diesel emissions......... “And what about the destruction of the rain-forest?” he concludes truimphantly.
This Ana is obstinate. “We must start somewhere.”
Her mother materialises, distributing hot-dogs. “San Juan is sacred - especially for us, hija,” Doña Rosa gently rebukes. “ The customs should not be flouted.”
Well, nobody’s taking the slightest notice of the ban up here. We are in the street, seated on boards, makeshift benches, resting on stones around the Choque family bonfire. Throughout the Alto, freshly lit fires crackle, sparklers splutter, rockets flare, radios clash, transfusing their music into a cacophony. It’s getting hard to hear each other.
Anyway, the debate has to be abandoned when a dozen visitors arrive, hauling and stacking their own crates of beer. The usual greetings - backslap, handshake, backslap. The night is intensifying.
I do worry about those kids wandering around with sparklers and bangers in their little fists. I had a pal at primary school whose thigh was cremated by the fireworks he’d stuffed into his trouser pocket. But there’s no-one to care, the adults tipsy already.
Further discomfort; the guests have manoeuvred me into the pathway of the smoke. Too polite or too intimidated to complain, I abandon the street for the Choque’s empty yard where a dense calm reigns like the last air-pocket of an overturned canoe.
Alone, I fall into a reverie centred on Sarah, Geordie and the crew back in London, the summer solstice I’ve forfeited by travelling to the Andes. Where are my pals now? Perhaps around their own blaze on the Hackney Marshes slugging cans of real ale, puffing on a joint or two. Mmmm, tempting. Or elsewhere out of London, because even at night, even in the open, the city presses in like an encroaching migraine.
I’m stooped over piles of building materials, sliding from nostalgia (home, James) into depression, when Julio comes searching.
“Jaime, you mustn’t sit alone on this night. Let’s go see what the kids are watching.” Oh yes, that flickering window could only be a roomful of tv. “The last I heard,” he says, “they’re putting out the fires in the city.”
Now, there’s an Orwellian brigade.
Within their den, the coming generation is caught in the hold of the box. The screen casts a half-light on the full-house of teenagers. Posters of Jesus and a Christlike Che gaze down.
Indeed, see, the valiant ecological units, dressed in green, naturally, are stomping and scattering the San Juán fires. An indistinct picture, night-vision of forms and uniforms, but one point is clear - the revellers are resisting. Molotovs versus tear gas, downtown the party rages.
“The cops are retreating.” The nephew bounces on the sofa, raising dust. “Look at them run. Qué maravilla, They’re bringing in reinforcements. Army recruits, mira. Why do they always choose innocents for such dirty work? I’m never going to join up. When it’s my turn, they’ll have to come and arrest me.”
His sister turns on him. “Maricón,” she spits. She’s just told him he’s a queer and compounds the insult by adding, “Now that they accept girls, I’ll do my year of military service.” She grabs the nephew by his hair and tugs hard. In fact, she’s already joined the ranks - of the taunters through the ages, those women who urge their men on to massacre or die. I blame her for the burning villages and bayonetted babies. Jesus and Che exchange wry smiles.
“What about you, Julio?” I ask.
“Sure, I joined up. It’s really hard to avoid the pressure from your classmates and family.” He glares at the girl, Viviana’s her name, sitting on the floor, knees up, popping her chewing-gum. “But no way am I proud of it,” he adds.
Little sister Viviana isn’t through yet: “At least respect the defenders of our nation!” Her reactionary views in a household of ex-miners are surprising.
“I show respect to those that deserve it,” says Julio. “Military service is a waste of time, it’s brutality and brainwashing. What good does all that drilling do? When the enemy attacks in their new US jets, they’ll get a great view of the recruits doing press-ups on the parade-ground.” The girl doesn’t answer, she’s lost interest.
We return to the tv screen, now blank. Reporters and cameramen have succumbed to the tear-gas. The ex-dictator’s law n’order eco-boys don’t play softball. Nevermind; one of the youngsters hits the remote button and a salsa band replaces the riot.
After interminable hours, days, months and years of chalk on the blackboard, I am saturated with adolescents. Together they just seem to seethe. So, I’ll return to the bonfire with Julio and nurse my drink.
And since I’m brimming with news, I have to butt rudely into the circle.
“We’re lucky up here. In the city, the fires are out.”
Ana laughs; “They wouldn’t dare in the Alto.”
“Buenas noches, joven!” Oops - if our company has shrunk in my absence, it’s also grown in stature. Don Mario, he who claims to have touched the hem of Che’s cloak, has rebuked me through his greeting. I must learn that in Bolivia formalities are attended to first. Only after I’ve gone over to shake his hand, does he register my apology with a slight nod.
The piled embers radiate, the tea-kettle circulates but Mario has yet to work off his pique. “Ana, haven’t you taught that boy how to chew coca properly yet?” She changes seats for the lesson in etiquette. “Hold the leaves in your left hand, Jaime - now, with your right hand - don’t stuff them in your mouth, we’re not animals - that’s right, one by one.” She hands me what looks like a piece of black hash, but it’s lejía, the alkali needed to activate the wad. “Don’t swallow, chew, for at least half an hour.”
Eventually my gums go numb. I wouldn’t rate it as a high, but coca does deliver the clarity needed for an all-night session.
“Look at our San Juán fires,” Julio pronounces. “Here we keep our traditions alive, Jaime.” And he jumps over the flames – a custom, he claims. “You do it too.” But he’s also jumped into an argument, with the jurassically hardline Mario over what constitutes a radical issue.
“Look, environmental politics is where we must make our stand, Don Mario. I mean, the army’s in the Chapare eradicating coca. Biodiversity, cultural diversity are part of the same theme.”
Mario raises his glass high, inspects it. “The greens preach a new form of control.” Mario has this fixation about control; most reconstructed Stalinists do.
Doña Rosa surpisingly takes up the challenge. “Here in the Alto, we control ourselves.” And right on miscue, her drunken son, Diego, staggers towards us, spittle drooling. He’s brandishing a bottle of moonshine.
Send on the clowns.
“Me permiten entrar?” Self-pity and accusation, a drunk’s favorite weapon. That his mother shifts over to make space is too simple for him. He needs to stumble over the bench, topple the kettle and land on my lap.
“Eh gringito, wanna drink?”
“It’s OK, thanks.”
“You don’t want to share with me, eh,” he belches sourly into my face. “Aren’t I good enough for you?”
At some point in childhood, my opinion of clowns altered. They seemed less comic, more violent, not a doorway to wonderland rather a grotesque mirror. Like Diego now, in the role of buffoon, imposing his inner demons on us.
“Gringito, gonna marry my sister? Put up with me as a brother-in-law?” The temptation is to punch him out but, incredibly, there’s not a whisper of complaint from these righteous people - no pasa nada, nothing has occurred. And I’m their guest. Diego shambles away to torment his wife and kids, the eldest of whom is our patriot, Viviana.
The interruption permits Mario to take charge of the discussion. No longer a laughable old-stager, he is comrade Ancient Mariner, insistent, hypnotic. We chew coca, the kettle steams in the sub-zero chill.
“So, you know anything about the massacre of San Juan, Jaime?”
Nope. But I’m about to be treated to another episode.
“San Juán, 1967. We were all at the mines then. Los mineros - strongest union in the land, we had the wealth of Bolivia in our hands and we were on strike.” Our circle tightens in the immediacy of memory. “Barrientos had just taken over the presidency in a coup.”
Rosa remembers him. “That sweet-talking fox, Barrientos. He spoke Quechua and danced like an angel.” Though smiling, she’s squinting distractedly down the road, scrutinizing the figures through the pulse of the heat.
“The cities,” Mario continues, “they’d already surrendered, but we in the mining communities put up the last resistance - Huanuni, Siglo XX, Llallagua. The bastards tried everything to break us, anything to divide us. Bribes for our leaders - didn’t work. Sent infiltrators in - we were together and we knew our own. Tried to threaten us, starve us, the whole thing - even kidnapped a few leaders. But were we hell going to surrender!”
“Sabes, Jaime,” Doña Rosa wants me to feel this, “Sabes, San Juán is special for the miners. You need more than skill and valour in the tunnels. You need luck and you need protection. Not a miner or his family would ever ignore San Juán.”
Mario again. “In front of our shacks, nearly dawn, and we’re hard at it around the fires, very merry, you know. Borracho, we’ve drunk enough to float away on when the first bullets whistle by, the first cries.” He pauses, halts altogether, only gradually can he resume. “I thought it was the crackle of fireworks, we all did. No elecricity to see the dead and dying by.
“We didn’t have a chance, surrounded in our camp; we were soused, but you sober up quickly enough. The bastard soldiers had crawled up in the dark, the cowards, used raw conscripts too, some from our own communities The officers would have shot anyone who didn’t obey the order to fire. Carajos.”
Just when I thought they might weep, these resilient, persistent, high-altitude survivors pull another surprise; they laugh, spluttering, coughing until Mario finally explains.
“Of course, that swine Barrientos got his come-uppance. Thought himself a daredevil, used to pilot his own plane. But he couldn’t keep his hands off the ladies, and one time he fooled around with the wife of a coronel who put a bomb on his helicopter. Nice types, the military, don’t you think?”
1967: the year echoes. “And Che?” I ask.
Mario stares at the palm of his hands a good while; “Should’ve been with us. We’d’ve followed him,” he slurs from booze and emotion. “Fact was, party leadership didn’t want a foreigner leading the revolution. Sent him south where there was no-one. Betrayal.”
Around the fire, the sculpted faces of my comrades are bathed in the light of the low flames. Rosa, graven earth-goddess, Mario, strained and resolute, Ana, reaching back to earlier memories, Julio, gaze set ahead. It is a moment of stillness., broken suddenly by a collective gasp.
A phantom has appeared out of the orange haze. From the tearful embraces all round, it’s evident that the newcomer is a stranger only to me. There are no introductions. Rosa hurries inside to prepare food. The man sits between Ana and Mario, deep in private conversation but his eyes drill into mine.
Dawn is scarcely an hour away when the police-car rounds the corner, issuing some pointless appeal distorted through a megaphone, for the fires to be extinguished. The neighbours throw firecrackers at the wheels, jeer, curse, reach for rocks. Reversing, the vehicle lurches into a pot-hole and the policemen have to get out, exposing themselves to the hostile night.
I turn back to the circle but the non-stranger has gone, his meal uneaten, his aura present. No-one comments and though the kettle and the coca still pass round, the conversation is sporadic, little surges of energy among the embers. Time to navigate home.
Extricating myself requires patience and formality. At the very end, Ana takes my arm and whispers: “I’m so glad you’ve met my older brother, Pancho.” Did I ?