Thursday, 9 August 2007

Chapters 18-21

The summer is seriously here. I have now heard from a reader!! This raises our known readership from zero to one, and for a mathematician, that's a huge factor! (You work it out)In the words of the Duke: Yess! Or some thing in a similar vein... Besos.

OOPs. This one went missing. I started it over a month ago and then left it, for some reason I've since forgotten. bummer.

Chapter 18
A Niche for Zarathustra

They owe me a holiday, conveniently enough for Edmundo, since the next directorio meeting’s due soon. I’ve done the Lake on a visa-run to Peru (receiving a 90-day extension, thank you) and found it hard to unwind there. My practised volunteer eye spent the time sizing up all those crops and projects. Maybe I should try a minor city in the interior of country (yawn, yawn). Perhaps not.
It’s Julio who recommends the Yungas. Sounds neat; eastern slopes of the Andes, natural habitat of the coca plant, tropical valleys (semi-tropical correct Julio). And he wants to accompany me but I refuse, needing fresh wind and, anyhow, I couldn’t trust myself on the loose with such a likely lad.
He wraps his disappointment in a gift, a cheapo booklet of the life and deeds of Che. “Then take this with you - para paracticar tu español.” I accept, but that’s only half the head-food I’m going to need.
Communication with the Israelis is never easy. You ring the bell to their apartment, and the reply comes distorted through the grille by the door. They’re home, but don’t remember who I am or maybe they’re immersed in some private hyseria. Dammit, I can’t travel without a smoke - I can’t, I won’t. So, I’ll camp on the steps and wait till one of them descends. Calmly now, no hurry - I haven’t bought a ticket for the Coroico bus yet.
Che’s saga immediately, completely immerses me, opening itself at page 59 from which the word ‘Yungas’ leaps out. I read how the original plan was to launch Che’s campaign in the Yungas because of its proximity to the mining centres (as the crow flies, as guerillas trek). The sticky, stifling tropical climate would bring on his attacks of asthma, but jungle’s good cover and miners nearby radical and brave.
However, the Bolivian Communist Party, jealous of a foreigner leading the struggle, shunts Che down to the arid, depopulated south-east of the country, where no popular movement as ever taken root, hoping that he’ll simply disappear over the border into his native Argentina.
At chapter-end, Yod appears. “Hey, British, so early you’re spying on us?” Early for whom? It’s eleven o’clock and I’ve already endured Asunta’s farewell breakfast, ridden a springless bus to the Ceja, kicked the shins of a teenager trying to steal my backpack, been whirled down the motorway by a driver younger than the thief and I have survived. Mine was the dawn patrol, Yod.
I’m entitled to complain. He’s just torn yourself from Tzipi’s embrace, lucky sod, and now he’s slammed the front door without bothering to let me into the hallway. “Ring the bell,” he snipes over his shoulder. I’ve tried that. “Use the signal, dumbo,” he snipes over his shoulder. “Two short, one long, one short.” Right!
Upstairs, Carlo the Cuban is rolling the first number of their day over the debris of a week-long party. He reminds me of a lizard - bulging, bloodshot eyes, leathery neck, stomach sag. Tzipi’s a snake coiled on the stained orange sofa; she’s stretching for her coffee in a fluid movement overlaid with intention – of making me gape. I comply.
Included in the price of an ounce is this advice:
“When you pass the checkpoint, stick the grass down your pants. Should be plenty of room down there, I guess,” jibes Carlo, “and even the police-dogs won’t smell it.” Behind her coffee-mug, Tzipi smirks.
Handing me the lit joint, he announces, “Yod and me, we’re going on a trip for a month. You should come over and keep Tzipi company - stay the night - hell, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Sure, here’s my telephone number,” Tzipi adds, an invitation, a challenge, pure Mae West, tempting me with the prospect of some good, clean, unhealthy fun.

At the Villa Fatima gas-station, I have to choose the variety of public transport in which to brave the so-called the Road of Death to las Yungas. A city minibus, perhaps, nifty and swift, light enough to be blown off. Or the lumbering bus that’ll grip well but has no room to manoeuver. I settle for the bus, already crammed with locals and their loads.
Though I’ve bought a numbered ticket, the bus company has jumbled the seating and overbooked too. I prefer to sit on my rucksack than bother that family of eight squeezed along the last row. “Come and park yourself here, pal,” cries an Aussie voice. So I lurch over and stumble on Sandy and her pals.
Within half an hour we’ve left the flanks of the canyon and are venturing up-mountain. The way to the Yungas lies beyond la Cumbre, the high pass over the Andes. Then we’ll drop into jungle - like a condor, not a stone, I trust. The route cuts beneath a snow-topped peak, white on black. Even at this chilly height, labourers are hacking at peat whilst their dogs sit by the road, patiently begging for bread.
Carlo’s advice was just another tease. At the military roadblock, a few kilometres into the descent, only the vendors hassle us, poking stale sweet-bread through the windows.
This narrow road is awesomely perilous. Drops of 500 metres in places, Julio has warned. Laden trucks pant uphill, piled high with mahogany, scraping the bus against the mountainside or nudging us towards the precipice. Closing my eyes won’t help; I visualise myself on a tightrope over Niagara, wobbling towards me an elephant on a bike. Tranquilo, danger spices the journey – could say it gives the road an edge.
Sandy, bio-enviro-eco-anthro graduate, comforts and comments:
“Wow! The vegetation’s changing so fast. Amazing, you see how we’re zipping down hrough the ecological layers, Jim?” Through mists of fear, I do - first a fern sprouts clear of the rock, then bushes, white plumes, yellow flowers, tropical trees. It is truly sudden, but not reassuring. Amid the greenery, metal crosses record fatal accidents.
The Aussies are unfazed. This is a minor league compared to canyoning rivers in spate or ski-ing glaciers. And it’s getting warm at last. In front of the gawping adults and kids, they strip to shorts and skimpy t-shirts. I sweat, hiding my untanned arms in protective clothing, still swaddled against a chill that we discarded a thousand meters up.
“What are those strange crackling noises coming from your crotch,” enquires Sandy. I explain, she hoots but her eyes widen at the prospect of good grass. Hey, chatting with Sandy loosens the thongs that have bound me over these months. By the time the hillcrest town of Coroico sneaks into view below the last coils of this intimidating road, I have a friend.
Dumped in the plaza, the Aussies consult their bible, the ‘Only Plan It’ guide which caters to the restless and footsore of this only planet, averting all risk of fleapits or boredom. The good book points the way. “Recommends a place up above town, pools and chalets says Lex. “Can’t be bad,”.
Spot on – the complex is atmospheric, beautiful. The travellers scatter to their cabins, dormitories or tents, swim, shower, sort essentials from neat rucksacks. Clothes are washed and darned. Shit, I’ve forgotten towel and toothbrush, so hitchhiking round the galaxy’s out for me tonight.
They’ll accept my company without the bag of grass, (didn’t Lex invite me over on the bus?) but distributing the goodies does guarantee massive, instant popularity. To a soundtrack of guitars and flutes (twang/warble) and the whirring of frisbees, a joint rolling commission labours. Soon it’s trancetime, until the next rush, scheduled for tomorrow, definitely. Half a day’s hike away, there’s a waterfall and its tricky swimming-hole, rated ‘an experience’ by the book
Our holy smoke attracts other travellers camped within our orbit. Maestros of strenuous fun, they’ve all courted disaster up and down the Andes, and have tales to swap.
Eventually Lex asks, “So, Jim. Yerself? What’cha bin doing?”
“Well, I haven’t been anywhere to speak of, really. I’m working on a project in the Alto of La Paz,” is met by silence and disinterest, meriting a notorious loss of cool. This man hasn’t even trekked the Macchu Picchu trail. That book on Che he’s reading, it’s in Spanish. Hell, he’s going native! Surprised he didn’t pack his briefcase and an umbrella.
But, later that evening, in the fragant flower-garden under a sliced moon, Sandy hears my stories. And if I jabber like Old Fred, the marooned captain of the yellow submarine, she forgives me and listens.
“Whatever’s going on up there, it ain’t healthy or real.”
“The Alto’s challenging. I feel at home.”
“Illusion, mate. They’ve got you typecast, they’ve got you acting to the gallery. In my books, freedom is about not defining yourself, never. I just wonder who’s pulling your strings?” Around us, toads and crickets rehearse their unfinished symphonies.
“As for those pals of yours, Sarah and Geordie, well, you shouldn’t treat friends that way.” Moths meander by. “And that Israeli girl’s going to eat you up whole, ain’t she? Won’t even bother to spit out the pips. And you’ll enjoy that, of course.” Sandy dispensing wisdom, but she doesn’t play games as she fans the night-fliers from her bare thighs.
“And don’t get ideas, ‘cos a scene between us is the last thing we need and, anyway, I’ll bet you forgot to bring condoms.” Fine, let’s not ruffle the still water, for tomorrow is clear with promise.
“Someone told me about a magic we could climb - Uchumachi’s the name,” she continues. “The others can head for the waterfall. I don’t wanna lose a moment of you, Jim, you’re very special. Now get to bed - on your own, pal.”

Such a relief to leave the high plain behind. The flat and the linear are banished from these valleys and the stark sun of La Paz here becomes become an emperor of steam In the tropics (semi-tropics, whatever) the very texture of the air swells. Good company makes a difference too, not having to measure each word. Sure, relax.
The steep walk has us sweating next morning,. Arriving where the giant golden bees pulse, we enter a realm of glamour and weirding, I can sense it from the touch of gravity in the stomach, like we’re tripping. A stretch of briar, then, after a vertical face of overwhelming green, a smoke-darkened altars below the summit.
Sandy fixes on the grey, fallen tree as the joint-rolling site, I spot the orchids on its trunk. Splindly trees drip in the filtered light. This is the magic kingdom, cloud-forest curling along the ridge of the hill, a dragon at rest No-one will disturb us. The locals leave their offerings on the blackened, stone altars at the entrance to the forest, unwilling to penetrate further. Far below us, with its plazas, pizza parlours and palms, Coroico plays the tourist town.
Respecting the stillness of the witchy wood, we whisper.

“You’ve noticed?” she breathes out, facing me in the spongy darkness.
“Yes, it’s strange,” though I can’t fathom why.
“Where are the animals?” Right; there aren’t any birds, spiders, not even insects.
“But the place is alive, isn’t it?”
“On a microbial level, yes. Fascinating,” Sandy replies and wraps herself about me in one vast Australian embrace. Faintly, so faintly at first as to be imaginary, a hum shifts to a drone, emerges buzzing, the only sound in the universe. A solitary yellow bumblebee, pumping hard, is clumsily negotiating the trees.
“In my awful job I feel like that bee,” I groan.
“Cut that self-pity,” sandy rebukes, yet she laughs and plants an almost chaste kiss to soothe the pain.
One last sight of life’s vibrant colours before plunging into the tangle. Uchumachi stretches along the horizon, sinister and latent. “The sub-conscious,” she says. “Like it or not, we have to enter.”
Inside, the tracks dip in dark neural pathways, leading to occasional clearings where sunlight holds court and midges dance the gavotte. But beyond these little centres of enlightenment, we’re confined to the paths, and then channeled into a single artery, mysteriously preserved among the riotous growth. If we stray, wild forces snare our ankles, lash our faces.
On and on we press, through dank filtered tunnels, silent shadow, by trees, vine and bush, mini-dells and dingles. Sandy vaults obstacles, I clamber under or over. The hollow ground shakes beneath us when we land.
“This is very sacred. You feel the forest is an entity?” Yes, its presence propels us along the implacable path, and we’re too stoned-stupid to realise that midday has gloomed and thunder claps above. When we try to retrace our steps, the single track has turned multiple and labyrithine.
“Don’t leave the path,” I cry but she’s gone. I succumb to shirt-shredding panic and flight, finally locating her by the altars, where she’s dancing beneath the curtains of rain, her oval face gleaming in the downpour. “Truly terrible,” I mouth, my numb lips chattering. “Idiot, we are impermeable. The waterfall has come to us.” And she pulls me sliding down and away from Uchumachi’s grip.
Two hours later, we’re drinking coffee when her mates arrive in great, high humour. The waters of the swimming-hole rose suddenly and nearly washed everyone downriver - another ultimate experience. Over the final joint, Lex makes this offer:
“Come and travel with us, Jimmy.”
“Well, you’re a fine bunch of people, but I’m involved in ...........”
Sandy opens her ‘Only Plan It’ at some juicy options. Wanna swim with the blind river-dolphins in the Beni, follow the dinosaur tracks from the ruins of Butch Cassidy’s ranch? Toss that guide over here, Sandy, let’s see what it says about El Alto.
Quote/unquote: ‘grey, littered and poverty-plagued sprawl ..... on muddy streets that seem to have escaped attention since Inca times. Unkempt children play in expanding potholes, Indian women pound laundry in a sewage-choked stream.......ugliness and poverty.’
Hey! That happens to be where I live and work. Any thoughts of following the Aussies dissolve. “Listen, Sandy. You want adventure, then visit the Alto with me.”

Sandy loathes the place, but her stay has the admirable side-effect of tempting Asunta to broadcast false news. Though she knows that Sandy sleeps alone in the spare room upsatirs (Asunta invents errand to check), for her the telenovela has turned alarmingly real. Jaime’s girlfriend is in town and they’re sinning freely. Thanks – by wrecking my moral reputation you’ve released me from Doña Rosa’s hold.
Sandy claims she’d go mad living up here.
“It’s the lack of vegetation, Jim. How can you stand it?” she laments, gazing through the window at the bisected mountain caught between the wedge of walls.
“You’re missing the point, Sandy. Because the Alto doesn’t fit your defininition of entertainment, it seems lifeless. Think in terms of Uchumachi - we’re operating on a purely organic social level here.”
“No, this place is terminally weird, ” she insists or perhaps she means startlingly normal, which frightens her more. Whatever, for better or for worse, I have found my ecological niche, rather like those bacteria that thrive in volcanic vents miles below the sea, unaware of how odd they are.

Chapter 19
Into The Eyebrow of the Storm

Doña Teofila leads our delegation to the protest march. The women depart on foot, bearing babies and placards and a woven shield of dark maroon, embroidered in intricate, yellow lettering, ‘Copcap (fundada 1992)’. We should catch them all later at the Ceja.
Staff are supposed to work, 24-hour national stoppage or not. The three of us labour doggedly in the tiny offices, Elvira and Ana poring over papers, while I pour scorn on the recruiting agency by means of my long-delayed quarterly report. I’ve enough survival sense to mute most misgivings, suspecting that Copcap was especially selected by my sponsors for its lavish failings. But this first report, although doctored, isn’t a work of fiction. Lumps of substance circle the flakey bits – my achievements; a third greenhouse, the planned literacy campaign, there’s even hope for the questionnaire.
From one cubicle I hear a typewriter clunking (Elvira’s dinosaur), from the other the trill of a cell-phone (Ana’s pride). These radical women are separated by more than plywood partitions. Status fuels their tension. Ana has a university degree and a salaried post within this organization, Elvira was a teacher, is treasurer now, works on a committee for a pittance.
Or, the problem could be a political. Choque ranges in meaning - bump, shock, a car crash, clash. Whatever, the surname Choque suits Ana well. Whereas Elvira is an organizer who believes in solidarity.
Our boss has phoned in absent, won’t even attempt to risk his flashy car at the road-blocks, is probably playing tennis with Pamela in the sunny south. But Oswaldo, living with his widowed mother in nearby Satellite City, has dutifully tramped to work. He now stands guard on the stairs. We, the drones, work exactly one hour, then down pens and descend, excuses ready. Ana claims an interview at a radio station, Elvira urgent bank business, I’m shopping for educational material.
“You do realize there’s no transport?”
“Your concern is touching, Oswaldo, but we can walk.”
And we exit, giggling like schoolkids, from a ground floor that vibrates oddly in the unaccustomed stillness. Ana’s conferring urgently on her phone. “The comrades are gathering,” she announces. Is she chummier because Sandy’s visit cleared the air or did Pancho’s summons raise me to the ranks of the elect?
Flagging a last bus. “I’ll take you as far as the first barricade and that’s all. I ain’t risking no smashed windscreen,” the driver grumbles.”
“You shouldn’t be on the road at all, compañero,” Ana counters which is rather cheeky, having it both ways, making the political point, then taking a ride to the Oruro road, a mile from the Ceja.
But today the pedestrians do own the streets. And the buildings, to their detriment, become more obtrusive the closer we approach the Ceja. Ah, Alto architecture; those gormless, yawning office-blocks, as elegant as sumo wrestlers on stilts. Concentrate on the march, Jim.
“So, what’s the aim of today’s protest?” Why do I ask? It’s the usual: “damned government...... privatizations......... protest loss of health care......... the family budget ........... our union leaders persecuted.”
These are complaints, not objectives.
“Aha, so you agree with me, Jaime,” shouts Ana. “We should be blocking the road down to la zona sur, allá donde viven los peces gordos,” that’s where the fat fish live. “What’s the point of paralysing the motorway? We’re just prejudicing our own people. The enemy enjoys its riches in the southern suburbs.”
“No, compañera,” Elvira replies, “Our strength comes from a show of unity. Look at the ranks of working folk.” She proudly points to the columns massed ahead.
“We are sitting targets,” Ana replies, prophetically in the event.
I stare at the defenceless women with their bundles and laughter, the men clutching sticks and bravado. They do rather give the impression of an picnic excursion. But it’s too late to doubt; we’re nearing the Ceja itself, the centre on the edge.
I suppose The main route descending from the altiplano into La Paz has always been guarded by rapacious, unfriendly merchants. I hate the Ceja, its ugliness, the cramped, narrow, filthy streets, medieval in stench. Entertainment is whisky-bars and under-age prostitutes. You’d search in vain for cinemas, theatres or sports facilities. The stores sell bagged cement, hormonal chicken by the truckload, shoes, drink, paint and more drink. The Ceja makes the Alto defiled and defaced, inorganic and, needless to say, every doorway disgorges those cumbia songs.
This one now: “Tu tienes la culpa que sea así” - it’s your fault how it’s turned out, the singer evading the issue so completely while, against our will, we hum along - to be rescued Suddenly by chanting and rockets. Those little Brazilian rockets, fired at arm’s length, whoosh, bang, bang, bang. We’re mobilised, united, on the edge ready to storm the city. Comradeship, comrades, courage.
Ah, the edge blows me away, blows me totally away. Those mountains ranged, the view never fails. Splendidly alone on the right, Mt. Illimani, 3-pronged perfection. Along a bit, the companion that according to legend lost its head in jealousy - yes, it is lopped. A gap and to the left, the twins; the one against which all trainee climbers test themselves and then the highest ski-run in the world until global warming melted the glacier, still has the highest restaurant the Guinness book claims.
“This is where Tupac Katari stood,” Elvira enthuses.
Never heard of him, I don’t confess.
“The greatest indigenous uprising in South American history. From this spot, he laid seige to La Paz for months and almost...”
The megaphone breaks her thread. “Link arms - spread out - make yourselves heard.”
“Tirano escucha. Aquí esta la lucha.”
Five women lead the march clasping one long, red banner which blocks all the down-lanes of the autopista. Printed on the banner, “El Alto reclama” - reclaims its rights. The little coronel’s highway, product of kickbacks and false accounting is crumbling, falling to pieces like the national economy. And now occupied by the teachers, neighbourhood associations, market-ladies, pensioners, railways workers, students, dispossessed miners, and our Copcap delegation, each group with its insignia, pride and history. The Alto protests, from babes to the elderly.
Señoras in layered stiff skirts whirl and chant as if dancing, but don’t be fooled by a carnival tone. The first stranded motorist to misjudge the mood will contemplate the fragments of his windscreen. We’re marching down to the city. La Paz lies at our feet, a cubist daub, slapdash against the dun-coloured crater.
Observing Elvira and Ana organize. Similar in physique, and yet so different in style. The former moulds comrades around her solid bulk, orchestrating by megaphone. Ana, low centre of gravity, everywhere and nowhere, wheedles, needles the crowd.
We’re roaring in unison, “Cuidado - el pueblo esta enojado” - careful, the people are enraged.
Kings of the road, the authentic voice of el pueblo, this is one glorious parade until, a kilometre down, we round a wide curve and see the battle line of riot-police glowering behind plastic shields, visors and helmets. They have batons drawn, gas grenades primed.
Ana opens a bottle of mineral water, soaks her handkerchief, tying it over her nose and mouth, brigand fashion. “Contra el gas - do the same!” and then she vanishes. Unease ripples through rank and file. Elvira steers the long column down to the parallel Old Road, a creditable attempt to rescue us from the assault. But in the manoeuvre we lose cohesion and, fatally, turn our backs on the mad dogs.
The first tear-gas shell strikes howling and the techno-bullies advance. Officers excepted, they are as dark-skinned and Andean-featured as the fleeing crowd, but training has stripped them of humanity. Within moments, men and women stretch on the ground, hands futilely raised against the batons or clutching their skulls. Children wander lost in the gas, the blood and the panic.
Those who can escape are scampering down the incline, melting into the warren of alleyways leading towards the General Cemetery. At the grip on my shoulder, I almost hit out. It’s Ana, masked and insistent, urging me back up to the motorway. We circle behind and above the troops to where a knot of our folk have regrouped and are collecting fist-sized stones. Yes, with rock to hand, I do feel a little boulder.
Our initial counterattack surprises, even hurts, but when the beast turns its jaws on us, we are pursued hard and have to escape into the townships above the motorway.
Panting (that Astoria habit), I collapse against a rough adobe wall, whip the handkerchief off to let in air and only then notice the photographer in the distance directing his zoom-lens my way. He hasn’t bothered to remove his dark glasses.

Chapter 20
Roped In

Monday. Take special care when the boss alters both appearance and attitude. Edmundo has shaved his stubble, swapped his suit for a coarse brown cardigan, is proferring lukewarm coffee and faint praise. The charm offensive, his offensive charm.
“Your performance is improving, Jaime,” he says, and strokes the newly-revealed double-chin. “You’re getting the picture at last. We’re quite pleased.” The royal plural must include Pamela and the gadgetry on his desk. No-one else is making positive comments my way these days.
Several phones ring, a fly crawls over the LSE certificate which causes me to wonder why Edmundo contacted the agency during his summer course in London. Send me a fool, he probably said.
“It’s convenient you’re more settled, because we have a little job for you. The anniversary of the Association is coming up soon. I’d like you to take on the role of coordinador.” That’s the very word he uses, ‘coordinator’. I thought I already was.
When? - this Saturday - short notice - you can manage – entailing? - a few sporting and cultural events, not very much work, Faustino will explain - funds? - sufficient, just ensure the day runs smoothly. Dismissed.
Bolivians are tremendously keen on anniversaries, any day will do. Dia postal and the post office shuts, dia del dentista no tooth may be filled for love or money. I’ve just suffered international friendship day, a flower and a card, and the rest of the year to get through. Whatever next, dia del torturador, toasting the victim’s remains?
This last minute scramble is so typical. There’s no-one to consult, certainly not Faustino, I’ve already searched the building for him. Retire to plywood cell, to doodling among the paperwork and fantasies of Tzipi.

Tuesday: Ana and Elvira refuse to help. Nothing malicious, they’re busy, as in wanting to see how I cope. You could say that I respond well in the circumstances, eventually forming a capable team. Closer to the truth is that Lidia, my supervisor, takes pity, takes over.
“First,” she instructs tearing a sheet from a school exercisebook, “we’ll programme the dances.”
“Who’s dancing?” Everyone, it seems, all the groups, directorio too, in elaborate costumes.
“There’s a trophy. And if you don’t know the difference between tinku and morenada steps, you have a week to learn how, Jaime.” Her vast form shakes with amusement. “Julio, come over here,” she commands. “What sports would you recommend, apart from football?” The list grows; a bicycle race, women’s soccer, the eating contests, a must in this land of background hunger.
“Anything else, Jaime?” From memories of fête days in the local park, I dredge sack-races, 3-legged races, egg-‘n-spoon races, good Lancashire fun. It’s the proustian armlock, damn him, hard to break loose. My suggestions are enthusically adopted.
Her friend, Doña Lidia, tiny and dynamic, hops downstairs with a shopping list approved by the Treasurer. We have lift-off. Miguel completes the team. Long ago dislodged from the complaints desk (Osvaldo has had it removed or burned), he’s insinuated himself into the daily routine as office messenger and tea-bearer. Slight, hunched, a talented listener, he likes working.
Amalia hands him the key to the workshop outside.
“Clear it, top to bottom and as the purchases arrive, pile them ready for Saturday. Except the cake. You’d better take that upstairs or the mice’ll eat it.”
What else to do? Edmundo already sent invitations last month to local dignitaries, political friends and tv channels. “El licensiado always gets channels 7 and 13 to cover the anniversary,” says Amalia. Not entirely thrilling; state-run 7, when not beaming propaganda, transmits Taiwanese documentaries on rice cultivation. 13, the university channel, re-runs Pink Floyd concerts.
Some of the directorio wander in. Julio and I push the big table to one side to allow for rehearsals. Bring a tape-recorder, Jaime. 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4, 1-2. Can I join in? Sorry, members only. But you told me ........ They’re going for the big one, up for the Cup.
And headman Faustino, where’s he lurking?
“Oh, don’t you know,” says Julio. “The event’s in his community, Kotapata, so he’ll be busy.” Yes, this I can picture; Faustino obliging schoolkids to swab down the prize bull’s stable before they start raking the football pitch. Meanwhile he’s allocating the beer franchises for the great day.

Wednesday. They’ve hatched this between them. Osvaldo summons me, early morning, just as I’m adding final items to the shopping list. His office is sparse, in keeping with its occupant, though he shares the top floor and some of Pamela’s official services. The man is austere.
From here, Osvaldo tries to impose discipline on the organization. Over the desk hangs a clock, black face, gold hands, unreadable. To his left, a calendar with dates circled. That sets the tone. Accordingly, there are many clocks throughout the building, none of them agreeing on the hour, and calendars in every room to mark missed deadlines. Osvaldo tries.
“I’m sorry, but you’re aware that I haven’t a moment this week,” I reply. Usefully employed, for once.
Osvaldo, at his least obnoxious, cracks thin fingers. “Well, I really was relying on you to flesh out these projects before I send them away. Just come up with ideas for some activities. You’re good at that.” He hands me a folder, but a glance is enough to know that he’s handing me trash re-hashed - business training, micro-credit, an environmental health project tagged on for show.
“It’s a question of priorities,” he snarls, yielding to character. “We can’t all afford to waste time fooling around.” Sounds of clumping dance-steps and laughter drift in. “There’s an evaluator coming next month.” Cuckoo, responds the black and gold clock, cuckoo.
When it’s clear that I’m not playing, he shifts tack. Orders from Edmundo, then - make a display chart for the anniversary, one that explains how Copcap is organized.
Hey, I know the plan behind this game. Give the boy enough rope and he’ll tie himself in knots.

Thursday. Bunch of boys jumping into the car, off to town, whooping and hollering. Julio, Miguel and I, the testosterone kids. Luis, obliged to ferry us today, drives tight-lipped downtown.
First stop, la Garita de Lima, hub of the old city, where among piled pig carcasses and quartered lambs, the dance-outfitters hide. Tiptoeing through a mean alleyway, we discover a workshop of dazzling colour where we rent vests of orange and blue; from the next, ostrich-plumed helmets; in a third, rough cotton pants, coca-pouches and silver coins. Just a beginning.
We carry the packets to the car, piling them carefully on the backseat. The sequins flash, the threads glitter like butterfly wings. These streets may be filthy and the endless traffic noxious, but we have captured the sun.
The open rear of the pickup is soon stacked with trophies, 5-litre tins of cane alcohol for the mob (brandy and rum for the guests), potatoes, tomatoes, flowers, eggs. Our gang spends the morning running in and out of markets, hauling sacks, sweating. Knee-deep in produce, Miguel stands guard over the purchases, watching for thieves, paying off the traffic cops.
“And where’s the beer?” I ask as we finally set off home..
“It’ll explode on this road,” says Luis.
Sure enough, up from la Garita the Old Road is cracked and pot-holed. Not that we ever build up speed. Between trucks and buses and minis and taxis and bikes and pedestrians, our progress is limited. In half an hour we’re at the cemetery walls, a ten-minute walk. Luis could have chosen a less congested route of the many that climb the flanks of the canyon.
I’m not moaning. In a move that thrills as it surprises, Julio has decided to share the backseat with me, though the front is empty (Miguel’s still on duty behind). The costumes take most of the space, so Julio presses his shoulder, hip, thigh against mine and drapes his arm around my shoulder. The slow bumpy ride does the rest.
I’m speechless, ecstatic, hardly notice Luis turning and saying, “Me and my señora would like to visit you one night soon. What evenings are you at home?”
Julio gives me a ‘you’ll-be-sorry’ look without explaining why. I drape my arm over his shoulder.

Friday. Tension, confusion, a buzz. Since early morning, the ground floor is choked with socios, some collecting their dance gear, others checking transport details, all demanding cash from a harrassed Elvira.
To compensate for his previous absence, Faustino is needlessly bossing and bustling. Urgent little conferences spill into the yard. I’m scratching my head over a roll of thick paper that should become the display chart.
“What Edmundo wants,” states Julio, “is an organigrama. Something that illustrates the decision-making flow within the association.”
“But all decisions comes from him and Osvaldo.”
“No they don’t. Look.” When he gets assertive, Julio combs fingers through his lengthening hair (is he growing it for me?). “First there’s the constitution which can only be altered by an assemblea annual of all the groups - here - from which the directorio derives authority - so - and then advises the various personnel how to................”
I don’t believe a word of this, Julio, my almost-more-than friend, but stay right where you are. I’ll bring a selection of pens and you can sketch the imaginary framework while I tend to other matters.
Then the cake arrives to applause and admiration. A huge cake decorated like an Ignatz cathedral, with ribbons sticking out. I can’t imagine what role they play and no-one’s informing me. I’m tempted to pull a sky-blue one, after all, I am a bolivarista. Wait, they say and wink.
So as not to be downstairs, Ana is hogging the computer upstairs. Excuse me, I have to produce a programme for the great day. Here’s Faustino’s draft - national anthem, speech of welcome, list in alphabetical order of dancing groups, Atipiris to Yanapiris. Ana won’t budge. Top management awash with hardware. Mid-level, this one terminal between seven employees - logjams and tantrums (or is that tantra?).
Blackboard and chalk on the ground floor, which Faustino is using to assign camping grounds to the various groups. In one corner, Amalia and Alberto practise dance routines while Doña Lidia, the African in her stirred by the rhythms, calls the changes. I wander over to see how the flow-chart’s rolling.
Julio has filled four sheets with multi-coloured circles, arrows and asterisks. Now what? Maskmaker Alberto is also a carpenter. Within the hour we have a framed panel to enshrine the portrait of our beloved, democratic Copcap.
As if to underline its patent absurdity, Edmundo appears and is mobbed by well-wishers. A kind word here, an observation there. He has them eating out of his hand.
He even offers me a piece of intrusive advice while admiring Julio’s nonsensical organigrama. “You’ve done very well with the preparations.” I haven’t done shit. “But tomorrow, if you could just wear some smarter clothes.”
Dress code.
“And see if you can find some trousers that do up properly.”
Zip code.
Edmundo continues the round of inspection, re-asserting his control of the proceedings.

Chapter 21

The Copcap carpark, which usually caters to the odd vehicle, today has grown into a bus depot.. Tyres are being checked, crates of beer stowed, supplies hoisted to the roof-racks, latecomers chivvied aboard. The flotilla blocks adjoining streets.
Osvaldo receives the second-best VIPs, those who for the sake of authenticity are willing to brave the Alto and join the caravan to Kotapata. A grizzled American, a French couple swathed in Gaulloise, a Canadian academic, are shepherded to the Toyota. Hey, what about me or don’t I rate as a fit companion? Luis accelerates through a gap and away.
Time to regret my good deed, dragging Asunta out of the house on this fine day. How long since you’ve seen the Lake, dear? - which lake? - Titicaca - well, I suppose when I was little, pero no sé, today’s a bit special, no sé. Don’t think I should come.
Listen Asunta, I’m also allowed guests. But my housekeeper has read the signs better. “Come on, Jaime, plenty of room,” the passengers shout from the window, only for the bus to fill mysteriously when they notice my companion. Of course, she is a bit ragged, but this snobbery of the dispossessed comes as a shock. I’ve assumed Asunta is part of the Copcap set-up, clearly not. But, I’ll sit in the yard all day rather than abandon her.
.So bless Miguel for inserting us into the Inti Wara bus with the Sun-Star group, stalwards of the Alto. He introduces me to his mum, sisters and aunts, who graciously motion us to be seated. Where? In the vintage black and yellow colectivo (1950s?), it’s already armpit to nostril. The windows flap from wires and had I space to bend my neck, I’d surely see the road through the floorboards. Could be an obstacle course ahead, fair warning.
No-one seems that concerned about time. First, we must comb the byways of the Alto for missing companions. Our driver doesn’t complain; he does what he’s told, he’s family. The group improvises lusty choruses. ‘Cuidado, cuidado, here comes Inti Wara. With our knitting needles and our dancing shoes, Inti Wara, Inti Wara!’
Even the burst tyre can’t dampen their enthusiasm much The spare’s on the roof, of course, jammed under a ton of gear. Fine, I’ll climb up and help the driver try to prise it out. Jesus, what have they brought for this day-outing? Excuse me señoras, are you sure that packing the costumes between the food and petrol-cans is the best way to have them arrive safely? Alright, I will mind my own business. We abandon bus to lessen the strain on the rusty jack.
A hundred accidents waiting to happen. The bus parked at an angle in traffic that refuses to slow, our kids wandering close to the road, the driver crouched under the perilous jack. And the tyre is just a prelude; a few kilometres further on, the axle snaps, by when the women are worrying. Nuestro mal destino, they claim; poor maintenance I’d guess.
All the gear is downloaded into a fantastic pyramid. The united will of thirty dancers forces an empty beer truck to a halt – there’s still hope for a triumphal entry into Kotapata. But that’s without reckoning on the cussedness of officialdom. At the Huarina checkpoint, we’re hit by transit regulations, real and imaginary, and the whip-round for a bribe, a handful of small change and crumpled notes, is so derisory the bastards just laugh.
These women may believe in destiny, but they’re aware that when fate serves up one slight chance, their duty is to grab it. The Channel 13 crew have stopped by the tollbooth for a snack and a leak. One of the ladies goes over: ‘Un favor, hermanos,’ wink, ‘when we give the sign, start filming.’ Inti Wara makes a scene: ‘Abusivos, ladrones, corruptos,’ and before you can say ‘candid camera’, we’re waved through.
The truckdriver can’t be convinced or coerced to take us further than the turn-off, so we borrow a wheelbarrow, which barely reduces the load. Miguel and I lug two crates of beer and a sharp-angled sack between us. Yet, ploughing along the mud track, the ladies are back in singing mood. Asunta hobbles alongside, crying with what I trust is joy.
Why not? A breeze is carrying the titillatory thump of brass bands and the crackle of a loudspeaker. Rockets burst. Once at the brow of the hill, we can distinguish forms, vehicles, colour, movement, the whole scene dominated by the sparkling lake. On the horizon, a tiny, emphatic Mt. Illimani, thimbleful of dense matter weightier than a galaxy.
We are late, however. Don Faustino’s reedy whine is announcing the bicycle race. Assembled guests sit by the master of ceremonies, swaddled in floral wreaths and drowned in confetti. Behind them, a backcloth of purple awayos stitched together and enhanced with small silver items - pins, pendants, brooches and, bizarrely, blonde barbie dolls dressed in ponchos.
The women’s race comprises one circuit of the community, then full tilt to the winning line by the table of honour. Not the sleek ten-gear mountain-bikes which would suit this terrain, but contraptions from India that accentuate the bumps. One cholita skids, the rest crash into her. Roars of appreciation at the fun and pain. the mangled wheels, the heaped bodies. Copcapfest has begun satisfactorily.
“I’d like you to meet our volunteer,” shouts Edmundo, but conversation is impossible since he’s placed the foreign guests under the manic loudspeakers. We mime greetings. I claim duties and scram, leaving them to scrutinize, if they so wish, the conceptual bubbles and intersecting arrows of the organigrama.
In the real world, however, the twelve Copcap groups are not mingling, they’re each ignoring the other, each to their territory around the football pitch, busily unpacking food and readying costumes.
Ana, looking quite attractive in a floral-pattern cotton shirt, beckons. “Listen, Osvaldo may want to put you on the jury,” she says.
“Who’s on trial?”
“Nobody, idiota, the jury which decides the dancing prizes. Just don’t accept. Whatever the outcome you’ll be accused of favoritism. It’s always controversial.” Thanks for the warning.
So what exactly does a coordinator do? The day’s events are unfolding, barring the odd twist such as the egg n’spoon debacle. We should have boiled those eggs, because when they splatter in the dust, I hear mutterings about wasted food, a felony in the Andes.
While the jury is being rigged, Edmundo fondles the mike, the smooth bastard. He thanks the dignitaries, the guests, the media, remembering to mention the groups last and utterly least. Los invitados are introduced one by one. The crowd jeers at the Bolivians according to their notoreity, particularly a well-known crook from the Banco Andino, and the sub-prefect of La Paz, who is rumoured to have supervised the interrogation of suspected terrorists until recently. Nice friends, Edmundo; like your nose, hand-picked.
In the morning rush I broke the principal rule of altiplano survival - never forget your hat. The sun is remorseless, aka relentless. The shimmering lake scoffs at my discomfort. Only beer is on sale, which will make me thirstier. Kicking at stones, I trudge to where the groups are adjusting their bells and rattles and plumes and whips.
Many troupes have come without musical accompaniment and are foreced to hire the local brass band, now touting for business. A few groups have chosen traditional dances that use wind instruments. One has brought a cassette that the sound system will mercilessly distort.
The competion commences.
First, a touch of devil-prancing; the ones with the whips are the slave-drivers, the dancers in suits and dark glasses are lawyers, Julio informs. And the men in hooped skirts, are they alien robots? Next on, vivid purple and orange.
“Tiring,” I comment to Julio, leaning on him.
“No es nada, in a real country fiesta they’d be dancing all day and the next.”
Even so, concentrated energy is required. The participants seem possessed by the spirit of their dance. I hardly recognize the directorio. Alberto in a bear costume, Amalia as an Incan princess, Elvira strutting in a sequined mini-skirt (a stupendous sight), Faustino looking ten years younger as he leaps agilely, whistle in mouth, marking the beat. For once I regret not having a camera.
And when the awki-awki (old men with bent sticks) has shuffled off, the jury huddles, except for the sub-prefect who’s well into his beers, not to mention that smear of white powder on his moustache.
If you ask my opinion, and no-one will, I’d give the trophy to Inti Wara. They impressed me with their simplicity; white jumpers, carrying-clothes slung diagonally, purple pollera skirts ballooning and swirling, the stoutest of the women soaring on thermals, steps deliberate, movement fluid. And backed by the pan-pipe band of their kids, nice.
But in awarding points, the jury’s clearly going to be fooled by the finery. And it’s not entirely their fault. This should be an exhibition, not a competition. As Julio points out, in the Andes the dance is an offering. You dance for the Earth Mother, to a mountain, for a saint, to purify yourself. I don’t like those expressions of triumph and disappointment as the results are relayed over the demented tannoy.
Third prize is awarded for costly and complex (hired) costumes. Second, and they deserve it, to my mates the Laika, reviving an ancient dance, to melancholic wailings of the tarka flutes. But first prize goes to the maskmakers on grounds of enthusiasm and extravagant dress. The home community, Kotapata, doesn’t figure on the list of winners, which may explain the later disturbances.
But next, lunch. If we humans didn’t have to sit down together three times a day for food, we’d be lost. This is the greatest altiplanic spread I’ve ever seen, the longest expanse of sacking, piled with the widest variety of vegetables and grain. In food we unite, declares Copcap, though it is noticeable that the groups reserve the spiciest specialities for their own sector. Los invitados eat, of course, at high-table with knife and fork.
After the meal, the cake is wheeled in and the presidents of each group come diffidently forward to pull on a ribbon. Each holds a message. Some are innocent - you will serve beer to all the groups, cook for the directorio next month. Others imply cost and are therefore serious - hosting next year’s anniversary goes to Kala Uyo, the poorest group in the Alto, their slice of the cake.
A powercut has silenced the speakers, so I can finally greet the foreigners. The Canadian, who works as a consultant to the UN, has had very little free time. This is a first experience of Bolivian life in the raw, though he arrived the same month as I did. He’s very impressed with this authentic, cultural event.
Likewise Jean and Claudette, a couple of teachers at the exclusive French college in the south zone of the city. Until now, the closest they’ve come to popular culture is saying ‘buenos dias’ every morning to their maid. I let all three of them congratulate me on my wondrous job. It’s nice to bask occasionally and we don’t have enough common ground for me to explain the nature of this latest Copcap farce, even if I could.
But I can’t fool Thom the Californian. He’s been here over twenty years.
“Never even intended to come to this damned country, man, let alone stay,” he mutters, slurping beer through his beard. “You just wander in and it’s so easy to start a business or get a wife, or both. You’re buzzing around and then, oops - flies to fly-paper, man. I got a life sentence.” He smiles wryly and cracks opens another bottle.
A sharp breeze has robbed the sunshine of warmth. From blistering heat to chill, there’s no moderation on the altiplano. But it’s not merely the change in weather. The soccer tournament has begun and kick-off marks the end of any carnival atmosphere. Beer’s being opened, cratefuls at a time, neat alcohol too. In the women’s games, the cholitas, unskilled but determined, trundle about the pitch to persistent heckling. Edmundo and crew find this hilarious, playtime at the zoo.
When the men line up, joking ceases however, to be replaced by a hostility as jagged as the rock-shards that Faustino’s rakers have failed to clear from the pitch. Drink and football forming their usual ugly partnership. Alberto drags me to the corner-flag where his maskmakers are stationed. The trophy stands prominently under their awning.
“Share a glass of beer with us,” becomes 3 or 4. Indeed, the fizzy lager does refresh, cleanses the dust in the throat marvellously. A nip of the hard stuff also slips down easy. The problem is that when I finally disengage from the first group, I’m trapped by the next. On and on, from one bunch of revellers to another, until I become truly soused and doused and giddy.
At what point of the circuit was that fateful note stuffed in my pocket? I’m swaying on a chair near to Thom, rummaging for matches, when I find the page torn from a notebook, a message in block capitals.
Even adrift on a sea of alcohol, I don’t for a moment doubt that I have received the summons from Pancho. Just that I can’t recall who, what or where the Garita is.
Meanwhile, two teams and their supporters are hacking and punching in the centre of the pitch. It’s the Kotapatans against a city group, who’ve enlisted husbands and sons for the game. In this town and country battle, the Laika aren’t going to stand idly by.
Edmundo initially appears contented as the fighting spreads. After all, neo-liberals favour tough competition and it’s only los indios bloodying each other. But when the first stones threaten to scratch the paintwork of his Dutch-donated supercruiser, we’re talking property. The guests have heard reports of growing discontent in the campo and will be wondering how far Edmundo’s authority actually extends. Time to retreat, before this event turns overwhelmingly authentic.
Except they leave Thom behind. He’s too busy sampling the excellent lager and those remarkable shots of cane alcohol with a resistance greater than mine. A bitter wind has whipped a wall of dust upon us, masking the football hordes and the departing cars. The display panel crashes and folds, organigrama to origami.
Though the scenes whirl by, this I do recall from the carousel.
Rigoberto, towering above the players and fans, tries to control the ruck, which parts and reforms behind him. Elvira and Ana gather those musicians still capable of staggering. The brass band instruments are already stashed, but flute players don’t lose their wind so readily. Music, the two women insist, get playing.
And the circle forms in shuffling motion (no leaps, no bounds), absorbing bodies as it encounters them, splits, reunites and breaks again, till every person, like it or not, conscious or not, is pulled into the weaving conga line. We dance beyond exhaustion, even in the inevitable downpour. It’s the stinging hail that eventually sends us running the buses.
Hail and farewell. Strong hands dump me on the back of a truck, in the open, under a plastic sheet. My turn to act the idiot. Once I’m convinced that Thom is safely aboard (he is; I hear him moaning, “Flies to fly-paper – life sentence, man.”), I fuss about Asunta. She’s on one of the buses - wanna see her - it’s already gone - wanna be sick. Oh, the fun of being brutally, irresponsibly drunk. Let the rain soak the vomit from my clothes. I’ll sink into my sweet bolivian oblivion.