Holding Onto the Weak End
Sunday mornings find me alone, stranded on a bed, dream-wisps circling - usually school rumours, accusatory stares, that London scene. When the dawn-song of a lone bird reaches in, I have another half-hour’s sleep until the silence shatters.
Source of the onslaught is Padre Ignacio, local Catholic priest. In fact, not so local, native priests being thin on the ground even after 500 years of indoctrination Ignatz is a displaced German who’s encircled this part of the Alto with a dozen incongruous churches of assorted oddity, his unholy roman empire.
At 6.30 am, Our Lady of the Bleeding Heart, I believe it is, opens up full volume with a fuzzy recording of bells. Real bells I might accept; they suggest sweat and some human endeavour. But Mr. Sony’s second best sound-system comes on like a purgative and I’m up and cursing. Next tape, a lowing nun’s choir, is truly wretched. Then Ignatz grabs the mike and hits all the wrong notes. If Jesus hadn’t wept, I would.
Turn on the radio to drown out the racket, but at this hour the choice is weepy ballads or news in Aymara. The latter wins. It’s impossible to stay long in this bedroom looking out on the neighbours’ walls. Once down the stairs, I bow ironically to the furniture and race to the kitchen.
Doña Asunta has left some disgustingly sugary coffee. She departs early Sunday to visit her niece’s daughter and how I’d love her to take Saturday off too, but she doubts whether I’ll survive her absence. Shrewd servant plays neurotic granny and those weekends, when I should be relaxing, start on a low.
I’m obliged to sing since there’s no socket for the radio. The effort is rather exhausting. Even so, the curious flavour of modern church music still seeps in, the sound of silence from Paul Simon and Bob Dylan blowing in the wind, Jewish ‘60s folk-songs co-opted for the mass. I am clearly not alone in my irony.
Inside or out it’s the same difference, and the noise-count is up. A rival evangelist preacher has joined in the din. None of your Mary-meek-and-mild, these types are fierce, it’s get saved or get lost, waging the war on Satan, especially against that idolotrous priest. Mutual rantings boom around the buildings. I’m obliged to consider wire-cutters and dynamite.
Stumbling out to check. Yes, even the stones and weeds are wincing.
And then, since excess is never enough, the cross-currents of harrassment merge. Overhead a jet, in the street a pack of dogs snarling like a parliamentary quorum, a knock on the door from yet another bunch of believers, the jovial witlesses, who want me on their bus, urgently, before the world ends. I’ve discovered how to return their serve - by offering them whisky and cigarettes. They dissolve, I retreat.
To the bedroom of last refuge which, despite its damaged view, at least provides the company of a spider, my gymnast of yellowing walls. This particular Sunday I have mail, opened but not digested. The one from Sarah ends with best wishes, that from Geordie with love - what a couple they are. I force the tide of noise to recede.
In large and urgent handwriting, Geordie’s swears he’ll leave Leaside before being dismissed. One more confrontation, be it over his contentious conduct, the content of classes, or for fomenting discontent, just one more and I’ll quit, he proclaims. Geordie, the only teacher to ignite a few students with loyalty and enthusiasm, way off the richter scale compared to the rest. My cheers send the spider scurrying. He says he’s coming out to Bolivia, and, hey, what verve he’d bring. Sarah will never permit it.
I pale in comparison. Geordie doesn’t stand subtle insults, can’t be condescended into smiling back. He’d storm into that upper sanctuary of Edgar’s and .... and ..... be back on the plane to Heathrow within the week, wouldn’t he?
Sarah writes her 2-ton laser clock will be installed at Preston railway station next month amid outpourings of gratitude and joy from the northern travelling public. What I’d give for an hour in a corner of her studio now, admiring the white-hot creativity, her wielding of the welding gear.
Two separate letters. Neither bothers to mention whether they are still together, or even on speaking terms. No word on Leo, either.
I risk venturing outside, afield (or whatever one terms this patio full of rubble). Amazingly, the noise has subsided somewhat. A tenuous calm like radioactive fallout has descended. A yellow-winged blackbird perches on Asunta’s pick. It hops onto the wall, giving one pure burst of song which I’ll take as a signal to start gardening. Mark a patch, four paces by five, among the weeds.
The earth may be life-giving (Joanne’s mantra, not mine), but I doubt she’s dug ground as hard as this, fit only to raise blisters. Turn and turn, inch by inch. You’d be proud of my efforts, Mum, but I’m not doing this for you. Julio’s coming soon to check my progress. Gardening is so obsessive; head down, crust broken, stones in one pile, weeds to the other, earthworms rehoused. Dig it.
I’ve never comprehended why planetary life should depend on all those burrowing beetles, worms, and micro-organisms,. But beneath the surface a life-force does pulse. I’m investigating, stretched out prone, when Julio palmslaps the metal street-door open. He’s shouldering a bag of manure.
“Good, that’s the style. Take a long suck on Pachamama’s breast.” I get to my feet, embarrassed. “And you’ve made fine start on the digging. But look, there’s no need to step on the soil you’ve just turned.” True, instead of working back from the hard-pan edge, silly Jim has retrodden all his best work. Dumb, like dropping tea-leaves into the cup.
“What’s the Pachamama?”
“Earth Mother, deserving of respect at all times. And here’s an offering that will give her strength to make the plants grow,” Julio grins, one hand gracefully on hip, the other displaying the goods like a salesman. A rich odour of deep woodland escapes from the sack. “This is great stuff,” he states, emptying the bag and spreading the pile with a sideways sweep of the pick. “From my compost pile” - no shit.
As we work, I learn that it’s each gardener to the acreage of his mind, concentration replacing talk. The fall of pick and shovel conjures up a silence where dog-pack battles, children’s cries, the drunken smashing of beer-bottles, can’t intrude.
Stealing glances at Julio, wondering if he feels my lust. A delicate moment is approaching when I’m going to overstep the boundary into unknown territory and be damned. Quick, retire to the kitchen and prepare lunch, bustle among the vegetables, work off that desire.The soup bubbles. So do I.
Fortunately or not, Julio blunders into a conversation that will break the mounting spell. “Do you have a girlfriend, Jaime?”
Sarah’s letter resonates, allowing a guarded reply: “Yes, maybe.”
“Will you be marrying her?”
“And if she’s already married?” I ask this to test Julio, but the question is pertinent. How lawful was that ceremony at the Glastonbury Fayre, conducted by an itinerant tarot-teller, minister and congregation all tripping? How solvent is Sarah and Geordie’s union after my own loving intrusion?
“Your affairs are really complicated, Jaime,” Julio manages “Which leaves you free, of course,” my heart leaps, “to find a wife here, doesn’t it?” If looks could wither, he should be a shrivelled frond by now, but Julio doesn’t notice. “Sabes, Ana could be convinced with a bit of effort.” This conversation is going off the rails. Back to work.
One last chance of redemption. “And yourself, Julio – anyone in your life?”
“I can’t consider marriage until I’m 30 and a working professional.”
“But, have you met her yet?” No response.
We move into the street to plant seven saplings, each in a lovingly prepared hole, protected, necessarily, by cages of fencing-wire. I imagine a relationship with Julio passing through similar stages; the embedding, the flowering, responsibilities, growth tethered and caged in. My fantasy didstorts tino depressing prospect.
Back inside, tilling the land, another knock on the door.
“Quién es?” Who?
That’s how they always answer. It’s infuriating. I’m tempted to continue the exchange, “And who’s me?” but then they might reply, “You.” And I’d drown in the existential muddle.
Ana enters, holding a cake wrapped in white paper. She does not seem pleased to see Julio, so maybe he’s right, the girl does have designs.
“Shall I put the kettle on?”
“No,” she says, “I’ll help you finish the digging.”
At which moment, a neighbour turns his radio to the cumbia station and Ana explodes into righteous anger. “Qué terrible!” Well, dull maybe, reggae without spring, but then this world is full of boring music.
“The worst part is the lyrics, totally indefensible,” Ana asserts. “Listen to what he’s singing. ‘Me has engañado, me has traicionado: ’ - self-pity and blame. All the songs are like that.” Yes, the singer is certainly guilt-shifting. ‘You tricked me, you betrayed me, it’s your fault that I can never love again.’
Julio’s having none of it. “ You read too much into the words, Ana.”
“Ay dios, qué machismo. What about this one, Julio?”
A poignant love song: ‘Chica, don’t you ever forget you’re my private property’, yeah, clearly IMF sponsored. But it’s the final doom-laden ditty, set to a jaunty beat, ‘I’m going to take poison so as to forget you’ that decides me. “Truly shocking,” I have to admit.
And once registered, cumbias become the curse of my life. I hear them on every bus, in markets, restaurants, on the street, in my dreams; there’s no escape from the background pollution,– hummable tunes, awful lyrics. Mental static, makes me puke.
Yet Julio keeps on arguing till Ana walks out in disgust.
Five minutes later Julio himself goes, skinning me for ten dollars in local currency, knowing that I won’t refuse, not with the generous income I’m presumed to receive (and do, including perks he can’t imagine). But he hasn’t exhausted his aggravations. At the door, Julio hints that my immense influence at the embassy might obtain him a scholarship, then taunts me over the luxury of my surroundings. Does he intuit how much I’m at his mercy?
I dig on till sunset, battering the sods, risking sunburn, wondering if this patch of garden is merely a plot. Blisters burst, and worse, the neighbour stays tuned to his infernal station, forcing me to turn up my own radio beyond distortion, like slapping whitewash over thick black paint.
By early evening, when Ignatz takes to the microphone again, crooning insistently off-key, the day’s toil has conferred immunity on me. Birds peck the freshly turned earth, the sun’s late rays turn the adobe walls golden, I experience sound as silence.
Breakthrough : Thin Ice
The rhythms of the Alto are steady, I’ll admit they’re life-sustaining, but when the diet gets monotonous and the pace too measured then I have to abandon the plain. Only the city of La Paz can provide contours.
I’ve given up on the minibuses, can’t take the noise. They all use voceadores, voicers (an apt name), who shout prices and destinations, non-stop. One of those in your ear-drum for three-quarters of an hour is worse than a throng of auctioneers selling a barnful of bellowing bulls.
No, the best ride is el Especial, a Scandinavian superbus with suspension smooth enough to permit reading or writing. Dwarfing the other vehicles on the road, they’re totally incongruous in a transport system which holds itself together on welding, wire and hope. One has to wonder how such buses reached land-locked Bolivia - on a raft, in pieces, by brown paper parcel?
This one’s green and white and it delivers us, mid-morning, to the Alonso de Mendoza Square, where a statue of the Spaniard, complete with sword and charter, commemorates the founding of the city on this spot in 1548. Like so much history, a pack of small-scale lies. Here’s a more accurate version of the tale.
Alonso led a pack of feuding conquistadores, all canny survivors, distrusting and untrustworthy. Alonso is the enforcer. He has orders from the viceroy to start a city which will protect the silver en route from the fabulous new mine of Potosí. And, incidentally, to distract these seasoned cut-throats with civic responsibilities and property. Unfortunately, the orders are very specific; the city of Our Lady of Peace must be sited at Laja.
Which made sense in the cloisters of the Inquisition in Lima, but when Alonso and his band reach Laja they find a few windswept hovels at a crossroads on the great plain. Since he can’t disobey the clear instructions, Alonso goes through the motions, and three days later conveniently absents himself, letting the others move the show to the gold-mining centre of Chukiago, today’s La Paz.
The newly founded city, plus charter, banner and Indian slaves, rouses itself and marches a final fifteen miles to the abrupt edge of the plain, to a vast natural amphitheatre spreading south, hey - gold and warmth. The city of peace, site of untruths, intrigues and bickering ever since.
Funny thing; those Spaniards were fantastically impervious to discomfort. They could ride for days and then fight a skirmish or two before early-morning mass, without breaking sweat. Why, then, did they quit the altiplano? Were they oppressed by the scale of its apparent emptiness? Yes, I suspect, as Alonso and his gang gazed down from the Ceja, they rejoiced to find once again limits to the horizon.
As do I.
So what does one seek in an indifferent city – company, allure, thrills? My few attempts at discovering La Paz night-life have failed. Sober on expensive beer, I watch the locals form mutual admiration societies, the travellers discuss routes and e-mail facilities. There’s no entry, I’ve stopped trying.
Today I’ll settle for a plate of reasonable food and letter or two from home. Then up to the throbbing Buenos Aires on a visit to Mario. He’s been leaving urgent messages with Ana. Weird really, I’ve had the impression he despises me.
These are the fruits of my site-seeing.
Alonso’s square, a concrete void contained by iron railings. When will the paceños learn? A park must give the illusion of losing the city for a while. These few trees do not a park make.
A block further on, the famous San Francisco church, but one look inside is enough. Here the spirit sinks under such a weight of precious metal. Priests drone their heavy Mass. The Spaniards never realised that gold represented sunlight and vitality to the Incans. Heavy, away, quick.
The climb up to the witchcraft market is fairly steep, resulting in blurred vision and a clamping headache. Not Everest, but cigarettes do tell in altitude. With my final reserves of breath, I phone Mario from a street-kiosk. Later, he says.
Near the entrance to labyrinth of markets there’s a scrawled sign, ‘Felafel today’ which hauls me in. The desire for a simple chickpea meal after weeks of greasy meat leads me up the painted wooden staircase. A long room dominated by smoke and hubbub. Tacky varnished tables, a view of other windows staring back from across the street. The felafel is flavourless gum - as a restaurant El Lobo earns no stars. But I’ve stumbled onto a scene, the watering-hole for Israeli travellers.
Scribbled notes in Hebrew fill the bulletin board where two tatter-jeaned lads, guidebooks out, discuss, that’s too mild, debate. Good, these people might be sufficiently crazy to talk to me. Among the heaped backpacks, a willowy yet robust, statuesque blonde smiles at me from across the tables. Is this ever my lucky day?
This last month, I reflect, has reinforced my natural caution. Rounds of negotiations - for credibility at the office, for acceptance in the groups, for living space with Doña Asunta, I’ve been handling delicate crockery. Whereas, the atmosphere of license is palpable in the restaurant; there’s an air of reckless resolve. The Israelis all of one age and nothing is going to stand in their way. Such bulls in a china shop are most alluring. Allure; I leave myself open and in rush the ghouls. In fact the girl’s limbering this way right now - with the poise of a huntress.
Tzipi doesn’t make the mistake of addressing me in Hebrew. You’re not a tourist, are you? Me neither. Though why she, of all the Israelis present, isn’t in transit, fails to cross my mind.
That lazy drawl she affects, scoffing at every feature of local life, the people, the food, the weather, the hygiene, the transport and accomodation, the awful folk-dancing, the religion, the politics. After my timid respectfulness, I do need to hear someone get rude about Bolivians. It’s a bravura performance, the metal glint of her eyes warning, her husky voice dissolving doubts.
The local grass is wonderful, she assures me most earnestly, would you like to try some? She has me sussed. Welcome to my web-site, gloats the spider.
What are we waiting for?
“You’re talking to the ex-commander of a military unit,” she says, as I struggle to keep up with her strides. “And I enjoyed every moment of the experience.” The day takes on a surreal golden glaze.
On reaching her apartment sitated behind the state university, images of bedding an army lieutenant crumple like a used condom. The front door opens to her signal and, four floors up, I’m presented to the room-mates, Israelis I presume, one dark, sturdy and knowing, the other squat, lizard-eyed. The apartment stinks of sweat and action, of maps, radios, tools, dirty clothes thrown on muddy boots.
The lads run an adventure tour business, for their compatriots exclusively, ferrying them in jeeps to the jungle or across the plains to the salt-flats. Demand is constant, the accent on adventure. Logical conclusion to the three-year army stint, Tzipi explains. After guarding a narrow strip of history, the reward is to be loosed on the unimaginable vastnessses of South America.
“You British?” asks Yod, the lean, dark one. “OK, I forgive you. ” He sprawls on an orange sofa which has seen better days and starts to spin his yarns. “Man, we just had such a time in Oruro. Some traffic cop stopped us. Didn’t have them any documents to show him.” Huge joke, another escapade notched up. “In jail for two days when we started arguing.”
“Took you long enough to get the papers to us, Tzipi,” complains the reptile, obviously unused to living on the wrong side of the Gaza checkpoint.
“Never mind,” laughs Yod. “Got on great with the prisoners, they loved us. Here, look at these photos we took inside - wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Glancing out of the window, I see a wall coated in graffiti; coronelito asesino ladron -. viva el Che On the pavement, a dead dog’s head pokes out of a black plastic bag.
“Wanna smoke a joint, British?”
Oh indeed, ever since the last one, which Geordie rolled with style and gusto that London morning only hours before the flight.
From the rubble-strewn floor Yod produces a dented biscuit tin, pushes the goods towards me and invites me to do the honours. The first whiff of resin has me salivating. (Does that ring a bell, Mr. Pavlov?)
Lift-off. Fuck, this stuff is as strong as fuck.
In no time (where’d it go?) the providers of the bud are best buddies and I’m blabbing away over a mug of coffee about my life and works, cheerfully scribbling down the Copcap number. The girl insists on seeing me again soon. I consider cancelling the visit to Mario, but it’s already in motion.
“Can I score $10 worth?”
Yod sticks his hand in the tin, pulls out a generous fistful of the wondrous weed. Tzipi’s forthright kiss promises nothing. And Carlos, who’s not really Israeli, he’s from Havana, just stares and blinks. Israelis and Cubans hanging out together should resonate oddly, but I’m befuddled.
The smoke has cracked the city into a thousand tumbling views, each self-contained, each part of the distended whole. I pass the San Pedro jail, my future home, and even examine the patterns on the bullet-riddled fortress walls.
“Jaime, Jaime. You think I’m so blind that I don’t notice you’ve stopped listening?”
This room is a shrine to history; the posters, the placards, the photos, stare down at me in derision. A metal alarm clock ticks like a factory-hand with a quota to fulfil.
“Very sorry.” But I’m stoned. “Could you repeat what you were saying?”
“No, nothing repeats within the dialectic,” which for an old campaigner like Mario counts as a joke.
“Aren’t you ashamed of your life here, Jaime?”
Well, actually, since he mentions it, I’m having quite a good time. No school-inspectors, knitting needles instead of knives, a few false smiles (par for the course), rhythm. Each evening I return to my sweet house from hell and in the morning a queue awaits me at the office. A little, brittle life, protected by my outsider status. Why is Mario probing for weaknesses?
His miner’s wheeze broadens into a cough, he spits into a grey handerkerchief. The pipe in his hand trembles with frustration; a lifelong struggle come to this, flailing in the neo-liberal quagmire.
“You know,” he continues, “in ’52 we took the haciendas away from the landlords and redistributed the land to those who really worked it. We kicked out the mine-owners, created a free educational system open to all.....” One moment, sorry to interrupt, comrade, but, first time we met, you told me ’52 had been a revolution in name only, remember.
“What you lack is a purpose,” he splutters and the pipe, pointed at my heart, skewers any excuses before they’re made.
“I have to make a call.” He shuffles out to the communal house-phone, slamming the door. I should have waited to smoke that joint the Israelis gave me. Words won’t come, the room folds around itself.
Mario returns. “He’s arriving in five minutes.”
“Who’s that, Mario.”
“El compañero. You need commitment in your life, and my friend is a very committed person.”
Rigoberto stalks in without knocking, way too tall for a Bolivian. He stoops to embrace Mario but after studying me carefully, decides a handshake will suffice.
First we chew on coca, seated around the scarred, unsteady table, Rigoberto insists. I concentrate on the sacrament, a leaf at a time, no more stuffing wads in my gob. Rigoberto accepts a cigarette, Mario stays with the pipe, it’s an extension of his face.
“Bien,” starts Rigoberto formally, his hands resting on his thighs, “I hear that you’re interested in history.
“He knows a lot about Alonso de Mendoza,” Mario jibes. I can’t see what’s so funny.
“Listen, señor profesor de historia, you want to learn about the present day, the story of our glorious president?” And Rigoberto lays down this barely credible tale.
How, in the early ‘70s, a pint-sized colonel of German descent is recalled from his job as military attaché in Washington to lead a coup. He’s summoned by the top families of Santa Cruz, cowboy city, sugar-cane and cows. Our hero takes the prize and sets his presidential chair against the corrosive tide of communism, like a landlocked Canute. His infamous comment - sniff me out those communists, bring them to me and I’ll kill them myself, no hay problema.
So what price did the backers demand or is it just coincidence that the first cocaine trading organizes around the Santa Cruz families? Nothing ever quite touches the colonel (self-promoted to general), except for the son-in-law caught trafficking in Montreal, a cousin and nephew under suspicion in Miami, oh, and his country estate found piled high with coke, light aircraft ready to go. But that was a case of the shady elements using the property without permission. Our man stays sneaky squeaky clean.
It takes the better part of the decade to loosen his grip on power, a decade of death, torture and exile. From Argentina, Chile, through Bolivia, Paraguay, up into Brazil, the military dictatorss embrace on instructions from their masters in the north, swapping information and victims. They arrange coded bank accounts to handle the booty and, of course, attend Massin the cathedral regularly. Yes, it takes a hunger strike by the women of the mines, spreading to a nationwide standoff and finally, after seven long years, the little weasel is ousted.
There’s a failed attempt to impose a puppet successor in rigged elections, but the game should be over. Another petty tyrant retreats into exile. But no, this one has the gall to recreate himself as a born-again democrat, fabricates a political party, ADN, which clearly does not stand for All Damn Nazis, despite the party colours, red, white and black Nuremberg banners. Almost won in ’85, ’89 in coalition with a forgetful opponent, near as dammit in ’93, and ’97 it’s his turn in the game of musical chairs that passes for politics here.
Why do the voters, all 22% of them this time, support him? Well, in the ‘70s, as long as you wore blinkers and a gag, kept a clean-nose, watched out for plain-clothes, the dictatorship had been a pretty damned fine time, really. Those money-spinning projects financed by the foreign debt, such as the freeway and the national football stadium, had a lovely way of oozing cash right down along the line. We are eternally grateful mi coronel and, while you’re at it, could you please bring on the good times again?
“I don’t understand why you’re telling me this,” I parry, distinctly de-stoned. “We live through moments of collective amnesia,” replies Rigoberto, rising lankily, soaring like a condor over me. “We’ll meet again in my community.”
And later, cradling a bedtime joint, I’m still wondering which is potentially more hazardous for a young volunteer’s health; a bunch of excitable jungle-tour operators or that tall, rural educator who’s merely offered to show me the real countryside.