Alright, I know, I know, stop heckling, yes, I've already added FOUR chapters this morning so what the deuce am I doing posting yet another bunch so soon when I've hardly given our ardent readership more than a passing chance to get acquainted with the most recent material, and, what's even more important, to respond to this new reading substance with cogent, thoughtful and provocative comment, which I might then reward by giving it wider distribution, or punish by ignoring it which is a course of action, I hope you all agree, most appropriate in this setting. Furthermore, let me... (muffled sound of gag being forced, possibly into my mouth, then:
A Great Future Behind Me
Most embarrassing, our sortie from the city to steal from the already deprived. The decision to wind up the poultry project is rational, inevitable, unpopular. Luis continues to stack grain-bins and incubators onto the Toyota, ignoring the irrate Laika, their rage sliding from him, mud off a toad’s belly. Our orders are to snatch chicks, feed and fence-posts too, but such a move would verge on the suicidal. Since not one member of the Commission has dared accompany Elvira and I, we’ll decide.
Children lead the cattle and sheep home through lengthening shadow. The adults stand outside the metal shed, arms folded in displeasure, their backs turned on Luis, who is desperate to escape before the nationwide roadblocks start at midnight. No such luck for us; we stay to conclude the paperwork tomorrow. Ciao compadre mio.
I step away, past the Laika church towards the hacienda, studying the strands of Rigoberto's spider-city. So few outsiders live on the altiplano. Some projects and churches may hide in the smaller towns, but Aymara history, language, custom, communal duty and pride are like the thorns round which the shared web is woven. No admittance.
The mountains are fading, night takes hold. Unless I crawl into one of the animal pens, I may soon lose some extremities to frostbite, and who could blame the Laika for leaving me here to freeze?
But this fear is a product of my ignorance, for the Aymara would never treat a guest so. The local schoolteacher, call him Ismael, escorts me down a churned path to his home. Inside, the wife prepares supper under dancing shadows that hint at tools and sacks and fleeces. A slow, dung fire is crackling, pungent as peat. The smoky room is smelly, stifling, perfect.
“How long till the roads clear?” I ask.
“It's a serious matter,” jokes Ismael. “You might have to stay a month or two and help us in the fields. Then you can learn Aymara.”
“I’ve memorized a few phrases. But when I try them out, everyone complicates the conversation.” Ismael shrugs. “Try to understand. So many outsiders despise the Aymara tongue that we tend to keep it to ourselves.”
For the next hour, he lectures me on the subtlety and the logic of the language. Verb tenses, for example; one for the personally known, another for the indirectly known, and then there’s the unknownable. “The Spanish priests were considered liars when they claimed Columbus was a great man. How could they possibly tell if they’d never met him?” Even time and space are inverted in this harsh paradise. “The future is behind us,” says Ismael, “because we cannot see it.”
I concentrate, tongue-tied, until the children arrive for supper, sniggering a little at the singular guest but soon reprimanded. Ismael gives me a bowl of noodle soup and choice gristle, side-plate of potatoes. Just in case I might confuse his teacherly knowledge with wisdom, he puts batteries in the radio and tunes to a cumbia station for my entertainment. Funny how these awful songs are so beloved of the Aymara.
The family lay fleeces and blankets on the floor and, before I can argue about displacing them from their one warm room, depart. I have the whole night to regret Julio’s pulling out of this trip at the last minute. For some reason, he's been distancing himself. The staked animals breathe deep, lowing occasionally into the darkness.
I sleep well and only wake when Ismael enters to rekindle the fire. “One question, Jaime,” he asks as he tidies the room. “What is your opinion of us? Francamente.”
Choosing the bland option, I say, “You are very organized,” which he takes as a compliment. What I mean is ‘meticulous’, his neatly pared nails, the trim way he’s folding that blanket amid all this drudgery, the 57 verbal varieties that he detailed last night for carrying objects, whether pliant or bulky, wriggling or lifeless, grasped under an arm or hip-held, there's a word for each.. In the face of such precision, we are sloppy.
I cradle my cup of herb tea for warmth, and from the doorway sniff the dew. A scent of dung and vegetation, crushed by the night's weight, is borne on the breeze. Dogs bark distantly, wildfowl fly by, the altiplano grudgingly assumes the green mantle of its short summer.
You’d think that helping Ismael unstake his animals wouldn’t present much difficulty. He slaps a heifer on the rump to set it moving, so I do the same to the next in line. The headstrong beast, resenting alien discipline, swivels and charges. Pride induces me to take a temporary stand, to be butted, and then sit. Ismael has to restrain the calf, pulling at tufts of hair where its horns have yet to grow. Kids gather to laugh and point.
No sooner do I regain my feet than a passing dog that doesn’t speak Spanish (I cry, “Roque, Roque” in vain) growls, barks, nips at my thigh, tearing my trousers, drawing blood. A crowd cheers and, far from apologizing, its owner takes the piss in Aymara - fresh merriment. ‘Ba-aa-ah’ bleats a sheep, causing me to jump.
Allowances are not made in a marginal society. The Aymara have survived Bolivian gentry, Spanish invasion, Incas, Tiwanaku empire, Chiripa, back beyond recorded time. If scorn is an effective defence and they wish to laugh at me, they may.
But when some nearby youths, seeing as I’m hobbling and hamstrung invite me to the football pitch, shouting, “Jaime, jugaremos futbol”. I retaliate with “Up yours,” in English and, scratching at the night’s flea bites, limp on to the meeting. Elvira, her shopping-bag and kid, wait alone at the chicken shed.
The Laika must be occupied elsewhere.
“What about closing the project?”
“You didn’t follow the meeting yesterday?” In Aymara - no. "The hens and equipment are now community property."
“So why have we stayed over?”
When she replies, "To coordinate the roadblocks and marches, of course," I understand a series of related points. Despatching Luis was intentional, he’s been given no chance to eavesdrop, Ana’s opinion of my compadre is widespread, Elvira is a lynchpin of the movement.
We discover the men on the bridge by the river. They form a tight semi-circle and are discussing, I don’t know what, vehemently. Linguistically lost, trapped fifty miles from el Alto among amicably hostile peasants, I feel very vulnerable. Don’t be deceived by the red and yellow ponchos they wear, splashing colour on the drab plain; these folk are as soft as flowering cacti.
Decisions taken, preparations commence. Grunting and groaning, the Laika roll huge river-rocks up an improvised ramp onto their ancient truck, which sags but holds. To be on your own, with no direction home, Laika rolling stone. Twenty men (not a woman in sight) clamber aboard, armed with clubs, whips and slings. They signal for Elvira and I to join them. Rigoberto (hi pal) hands me a poncho and a multicoloured hat. “Stand in the middle and try not to be spotted.”
An hour into the journey, the truck halts and we all jump down.
"Come and view one of the glories of our past," calls Rigoberto.
I see a bumpy field enclosed by a wire fence. Closer up, it's apparent that enormous blocks of stone litter the ground, a giants' playground. We file in. Some of the blocks are incised with the double Andean cross, most are rectangular and plain, all are straight, not just straight but millimetre-perfect. Awesome; how'd they do that, given the tools available at that time? Mind you, any culture that exults in such regularity doesn't necessarily get my vote.
"The ruins of Tiwanaku," says Ismael and the other men sigh respectfully.
What happened to it?
"Latest research suggests a thirty-year drought around 1200," Ismael informs, "Causing the Tiwanakans to lose their authority and the empire to fall. The top layer of that pyramid," (you mean the crumpled hill?) "is full of human sacrifices."
Rigoberto shows me an artist's re-creation of the site at the local museum. Low, smooth, paved forecourts, open distances between the temples. It's fascist architecture, an affront to humanity, designed to make a person feel insignificant. Rigo and Ismael, you're not seriously claiming Tiwanaku as your inheritance? This is the work of slave-drivers, of Others, and it was evil, can't you tell?
We reboard the truck. If they are disappointed by my reaction, I myself am suddenly apprehensive, pondering sacrifices and the Andean double-cross.
At the next checkpoint, the toll collectors have been replaced by jostling peasants, who whistle and jeer at us threateningly before they recognize Rigoberto. The road is blocked. A driver mad enough to attempt to force this barrier would have to negotiate a hundred metres of jagged rocks, then take on our boulders, now levered off the truck. Only tanks could crash through, should the army have any.
Among the trapped vehicles, I’m glad to note, are a World Bank jeep and a UN execu-mobil. Their occupants eye us with suspicion - quite rightly. The Laika truck has positioned itself on the La Paz side of the roadblock, ready to ferry rural shock-troops to the city. I wave farewell to the stranded consultants and technicians.
We’re careful to stop at the last curve before the outskirts of the Alto, dismount and join the stream of travellers on foot. I’m even given a bundle to carry over my shoulder for disguise. We easily evade the police and military presence. The comrades all shake my hand. “Suerte, Wiracocha,” they say, as if I’d some mission to complete.
Transport is suspended throughout the Alto too, so instead of making for the Ceja and doubling back, like one would normally do in a bus, Elvira, child and I leave the road, walk the short cut over Rio Seco. The river is not entirely dry. Trickles of brown sediment meander past the gravel gatherers, at work despite the strike call. The city has ways of dividing its citizens.
“Elvira,” I ask, “ Qué pasa? Is Copcap falling apart?”
“No, getting ever stronger. Didn’t you smell the smoke from the millucha?”
“Yes and I felt a weird atmosphere on Monday morning.”
“Usually, a guilty person gets sick or dies after the ceremony. This time I do believe.........”
An landing airliner drowns her thoughts. I toy with the idea of visiting the so-called health centre (in a purely professional capacity, you understand), but doubt whether Vanesa will have managed to reach work today.
“............ and Ana is too closely watched to be of any use.”
Time and again, I play to my invisible audience, the paIs back at the pub. Hey guys, I’m crowing, look, check this, can you believe what I’m up to now? They nod, smile, pass a chunk of euro-hash under the table, order the next round, toast the absent Jim Stalker.
Then comes the day of the wedding and this not-so-entirely harmless fantasy folds. I'm at HQ Villa Abdullah, within spittle range of the spluttering Ignatz, in this tent-shaped church, rain tattooing on the metallic big top. Bo-o-o-o-ring, groan my mates and tune out in disgust.
But the priest, beguiled by his role, has forgotten we're acting. He stops carressing the guitar and starts to crucify some youngsters for the offence of chatting during the performance. His voice shifts from sonorous to grating to strident. Lucky I made that five-minute appearance at last night’s brainwashing session (enough to have my name ticked by the short-sighted catechist), otherwise I'd be in trouble too.
Changing to tyranically benevolent, Ignatz next delivers a homily on the duties of the modern Catholic couple. Have you guessed? Husband sets out to work each morning, wife tends the house, awaiting her man’s return, meal ready. Still, I have to admit the priest’s efficient, marrying three couples at a time, knotting each in a golden chain (an intriguing form of bondage) before blessing and releasing them with a lukewarm warning not to drunk excessively today.
My own gormless pair, Euripedes in a dark suit, the bride corseted into her wedding dress, waddle down the aisle. The organist mangles Mendelsohn. At the porch, relatives drown us in white confetti and a rain-soaked photographer peddles future memory.
“Step in compadre,” says Luis, ushering me to the white-ribboned, white minibus that trails jangling cans (painted white). Just as well Rosa warned me of my responsibility. The padrinos de civil have bought the wedding ring and dealt with the registry. I take the newlyweds on a mystery tour and let’s pretend it’s magical. Accordingly, I’ve stuffed my pockets with banknotes.
We make for Viacha, a rundown garrison town on the edge of the altiplano. On the way, we’ll pass the high-security jail of Conchocorro, residence to those ex-dictators and drug-traffickers not still in power. Doesn’t look so bleak, similar in style to my house, guards and machine-guns replacing neighbours.
I’m tempted to reconvene the doting pub audience for this scene at the toll-booth. A grinning policeman wipes gravy on the sleeve of his green uniform, minutely examines the vehicle’s documents. He wants a bribe, doesn't he?. I hand over a twenty note. “Call him Zacharias,” jokes the driver and I almost do. “Sacarías,” he explains, ‘you would grab’ in Spanish. Wow - a Bolivian pun. Achilles and consort sit impassively in the back, either they missed the joke, they don’t consider it funny, or their clothes are constricting them.
From Viacha’s main plaza, the statue of nobody notable surveys cadets picking their noses in doorways, off-duty officers revving motorbikes, a wedding party traipsing through deep mud to the one restaurant boasting lunch and platos varios.
Both waiters applaud as we burst through the saloon doors. Maria, my god-daughter, star for a day, has a little word with me, thereby spotlighting her gringo padrino for those diners who have failed to react. Next, she totters high-heeled to a table, dabbing her chemically frizzled hair, and fusses over creases in the dress. Don’t worry, darling; by the end of the day you won’t even notice the beer stains and puke.
“Stay away from the reception until three o’clock,” Luis had insisted. On the other hand, it’s tough entertaining a pair of morons, their padrinos de civil and driver. No wonder Bolivians dumb out on beer. I signal for two crates and we settle into a hazy pattern of food and drink and drink and drink, getting hazier.
Arriving at the local an hour late. Not that I’m any expert in distinguishing areas of the Alto, but it is disturbing how unrecognisable this sector is, miles from anywhere, definitely nowhere, meaning I am sequestered for the duration.
Lilac lozenges and acres of mirrors adorn yet another futile attempt at Alto architecture. Draped from columns and high across the empty hall, white toilet paper welcomes us. The local, though obviously swabbed and scrubbed for the event, resounds to sticky echoes of fiestas past.
A scattering of guests is already parked against the walls, the women spendidly garish in shawls, bowlers and gold jewelry, the men dark-suited, understated. My rented suit stands out, unsuitable, an odd fawn colour, though I’m relieved to see the men open-necked. Like me, they proudly and mistakenly claim to have no ties.
The band renders the Wedding March, then the Blue Danube, requiring us to waltz rehearsal-less. We do, like icebergs in search of a cruise liner, while family members video the shambles.
Speeches next, starting with mine. I can only surmise that hearing me stutter amuses the assembly. Meanwhile the other speakers, even taciturn Luis, launch into model toasts. Bolivians are so oratorically gifted, but I would question the content - strict separation of sex roles, no spreading secrets outside the four walls of the home, lifelong devotion, love and honour. Don't believe a word of it and neither do they.
As proved by the dj starting to play cumbia. I have heard this described as happy, slightly mindless, dance music, but grab an earful:
Mereces que nadie te quiere
No vales la pena. ”
A song of desertion and blame for our happy couple.
"Traitress, undeserving of love,
You’re not worth the bother."
The guests sing along.
Involuntarily I whisper to Luis, “Ay, this music’s terrible.” He rises and remonstrates with the dj, has the music changed. Well, that’s quite impressive, I am flattered. El padrino requires a change of music, so be it. I know the Big 'Un is guardian of the newlyweds during this reception, but hadn’t quite comprehended the scope of my power.
Huanyos take over, the swing music of the Andes, which, you’ll recall, Ana employed to save the anniversary. Elegantly snaking patterns fill the hall. The women may have an advantage with those stiff swirling dresses, but the guys also shimmy to the rhythm.
Unfortunately, we can’t enjoy this dancing for long. Every few minutes, firecrackers announce new guests. Then, bride and groom, padrinos and parents are obliged to form a reception committee by the door. We greet the newcomers, accept presents (many crates of beer, but also kitchenware and blankets), while a nephew notes the donorrs and their gifts in a school exercise book.
Then waiters converge bearing trays of lethal concoctions. A bottleful of beer in a bulbous glass (they call it the chop and its impact does resemble a karate blow), the knockout ensured by follow-up glasses of alcohol. Guests are chided to drink up fast - this fiesta has no truck with the sober.
And so, remorselessly, stupor envelops the evening. I'm obliged to sit at high table behind the fruit and the wedding cake, inseparable from my charges, observing tables tumble and women screech as their men lurch into innocuous fights. Can this can be Pancho’s constituency, the backbone of the Andean revolution? The prospects for change seem shallow and illusory tonight. Somehow, these people cut untrustworthy figures.
And that invisible public back home, they must be jeering now, reaching for the orange peel and rotten eggs before flipping to another channel. I’d leave myself, if I could.
The waiters, in their enthusiasm to pump up the madness, press drinks on the drunk, and are glancing my way. Eventually, the head waiter, under the pretext of serving me a plate of food (roast pig in spicy tomato goo), calls courteous attention to what he terms, my cara larga - my long face.
“Señor padrino,” he lectures, “For the sake of your godchildren, please, you must enjoy yourself. Understand this, happiness is an easy bubble to burst.” And I’m cast as the prick capable of ruining the party. He’s right; an undertaker can’t laugh, the clown mustn’t frown and wisdom comes from unlikely sources, from a mad bum or a zen butcher or from this stooped, toothless waiter in a grimy white jacket.
“I’m not used to so much drink,” I say. “Might I be permitted five minutes of fresh air?”
“Claro padrino, Ven nomás pues,” and he escorts me past the toilets to a back door, opening onto a street of half-constructed adobe shacks and the stink of human shit. I stride off to where the air is clearer, where I have breath-in space to appreciate the fat joint stowed in my pocket.
Soon all rancour is fumigated. Who am I to complain? Suppose we transported Luis, let’s say, to the Geordie-Sarah wedding at Glastonbury. In terms of anthropological tourism, how would he fare on a vegan diet, readings from Don Juan and Kahil Gilbran, washed down with a tab of acid instead of beer? Question of what one's used to.
The five minutes extend into thirty (maybe some think the padrino has fled), but I do return, revived and willing to accept the torture as a rite of passage and a glueing of the bonds. They’re now husband and wife, ‘esposos’ (which fittingly doubles as the word for ‘handcuffs’ in Spanish). After all this effort and noise, our not-so-young groom will hardly dare divorce his Maria. Desertion more likely, a trick practised by the majority of Alto men, (though weirdly, cumbia songs reverse this fact and accuse all women of abandono).
Talking of which, in my absence, band and dj have conspired to reinsert their dumb music into the festivities. They can’t conceive the power of the weed to sculpt the world. First one, then the other giant speaker, start to distort, mangling the lyrics, leaving the dancers a white-noise bass riff to sway to and then silence.
The party has mellowed, the cake is cut and smeared unconsciously over suits and dresses and hair. Finally, most guests turn to considering how they will reach home. Slumped forms are hoisted to their knees, the relatively capable dragging the elapsed out into the rain.
Bride and groom, changed to street clothes, cordially invite me to their minibus, but wherever we are now, they’re heading for another part of town and I don’t want to impose. I wander back to the hall, in its sudden, splendid, reeking silence now almost a temple, at the very least a drunken stupa.
“Padrino,” the thin voice cuts in from the kitchen, “you are all alone.” It’s head waiter Basilio, utterly fatigued from running the night’s exertions. “Where do you live, padrino?”
“Near Villa Adela. ”
“Then I can give you a lift, I’m going to Mercenario.” He shuffles along the deserted rooms, locking cupboards and hatches. His car is another species of battered taxi. “Bien, padrino. Ya eres Boliviano.” But I’m not Bolivian. You don’t escape from one culture (if I’ve truly banished my home audience) merely to adhere to another.
Midnight. On a single windscreen wiper, he charts a course through the storm, a seasoned mariner whose watch never ceases. “I hear you provide credit,” he pries. The nod I manage is cursory. “My family also need work.”
“We only receive organized groups," though, I have been considering that Copcap must incorporate new elements soon, otherwise we’re in danger of becoming a private club. “What type of work does your family do?”
“Oh, we’re organized, right enough. All my neighbours come from the Bolsa Negra mine,” he answers, skidding the taxi around a lump in the road, possibly a body. “So, we can always dig.”
“OK,” and jot the office number on a paper napkin. Ana may have some ideas for a group of diggers. I’m more concerned whether that smell of gasoline makes one last Astoria inadvisable.
An innocent enough conversation to land me in jail.
The Maskmaskers Brawl
Ana's signaling her disdain by sitting four rows in front and gazing down at La Paz, which is, admittedly, a fascinating spectacle. The city is stirring again after a strikebound week, but our bus is almost empty, so I can move forward to chat and be rebuffed. Ana, under tension at home and hounded at work (or viceversa) but, hey, since we are obliged to work together, a little communication might help.
During the rattly bus-ride down to the city, I try once more to fathom the depths of Ana’s resentment. Her woven bag, stuffed with charts and reports, proclaims zeal. A well prepared women, maybe she considers my approach lackadaisical, a charge I neither confirm nor deny.
We started this trip today at the Alto flea-market and have cut under the motorway instead of curving round the flanks of the smooth canyon. The route plunges into the gorges and gullies to the north. From this perspective, the crater appears gouged by giant claws. I suspect Ana of awaiting the opportunity to do the same to me.
Also, it's personal. Not just jealousy of Sandy; it's my links to Pancho. I'm the upstart intruder who's deprived the firebrand of her rightful part. Well, if surveillance is as tight as Elvira suggests, she's in no position to act and who put me in contact, anyway?
The bus parks at a dusty, grey football pitch that ends at an abrupt edge. The two apprentices in overalls practise passing the ball carefully - one miscue and it’s a helluva long retrieval. All the way down to - correct me, but is that a forest, an actual swathe of green in this part of town? Cool, but Ana’s already storming along without a backward glance. Wait, damn you!
Why has she decided to accompany me today? The maskmakers bore you (they're male-dominated and commercially buoyant) and, in your opinion, Alberto's an oaf. Yet, here we are, in search of the group’s fabled new workshop, which the office rumour-mill describes as 'luxurious'.
“Leave a sign when you find the place,” I shout after her. Ana's back recedes down a steep alleyway. I think she particularly hates my jokes. Seen her laugh, plenty of times, especially while she’s working with women on practical tasks. But hers is the type of fun that draws people together whereas English humour amuses by creating distance.
“Pura Pura,” states Ana, when I do catch up, her first comment in two hours. She’s pointing down to a distant jumble of chimneys and roofs below the forest. “The old industrial area of the city,” she explains, “where the factory workers beat the army in '52.” My sources are always doing this; presenting a ragbag of historical episodes, pieces of a fascinating jigsaw that never quite fit into a coherent picture.
Likewise, as coordinator of the faltering projects, I'm consistently being excluded from meetings and denied access to data. They must have decided I operate more effectively from a state of innocence.
Five minutes away from an important, difficult encounter, Ana’s only advice is, “Be strict, don’t take any nonsense from these guys.” Concerning? “Twenty thousand dollars in credits and not a cent repaid. We’re going to confiscate their materials,” she adds severely (metaphorically?). Us and whose army? Ana, rent collector and radical, is a puzzling phenomenon.
She turns sharp left and pushes against a gate of twisted fenders marked 'Auto Repairs'. In the oil-stained yard, an ancient hound too feeble either to bark or wag, guards the heaps of junky rust. It’s the parrot on the bike that alerts the men.
They emerge from below, where an entire building hides on a ridge among the eucalyptus trees. Alberto’s watchtower, as I dub it, is an ordinary three-storey brick box in an extraordinary setting, commanding a view of the northern and eastern flanks of the city, yet invisible from street level.
We descend by ladder to the upper terrace, leaving the biker-parrot and senile dog on duty. This top floor is a wonderful setting for a workshop, above the tree-line in full sunlight. Stairs lead down to family quarters, from where domestic sounds rise, the slap of laundry, squabbling children, food preparation. A path winds away into the forest.
Alberto, master maskmaker by temperament and profession, blocks the doorway of the workshop with a benign smile. He clasps our hands enthusiastically, before presenting us to the membership and guiding us to seats of honour. “How kind of you to visit,” he says, “a privilege.” Behind such a cherubic face, any number of vices might lurk. Ana purses her lips, spreads papers over the table, studies her fingernails, then the ceiling.
The large room is airy and bright, unlike so many other Copcap workplaces that face brick walls. Individual desks are covered with chisels, brushes, paints, gluepots, moulds and the masks themselves at various stages of elaboration.
Theirs is a living art, so I’m told. These outlandish, fantastic, preposterous masks feature by the thousand in the street-dancing extravaganza of La Paz, as well as in the fiestas which define community calendars in the altiplano. While the other handicraft groups strain to sell a few sweaters and ceramics, here excess goods are shipped at the end of the year to a waiting list of clients. Once in a while, Alberto consents to a special order from abroad, for an appropriate fee.
Their success has bred suspicion in the Association, though I shouldn’t think that many of the maskmakers are wealthy. The group numbers over seventy, their prices are reasonable, raw materials expensive and competition strong. But such a steady income explains the campaign to kick them out. What advantages do they gain by belonging to Copcap? Well, credit to construct this watchtower, for one.
Ana shuffles papers, crosses, uncrosses, recrosses her legs in a display of nerves. Perhaps not; an uncharacteristic dab of powder on her puffy cheeks, that slumped posture, her badly fitting jumper and jeans, rather suggest imbalance. Poor Ana, caught between the management and grass-roots, between the revolution and micro-credit. And I sense other cross-currents though I can't put my finger on them.
She clears her throat and, let’s get this straight, deliberately confronts the maskmakers. Among the gentler accusations: exploiting fellow workers, creating a factory instead of a cooperative, forgetting their heritage. “When I helped form this group, I never imagined you’d embrace insipid capitalism Your fathers who fought in ’52, would be ashamed of you.” She studiously doesn’t single out Alberto, but he’s seated at her side, nursing an expression of aggrieved indifference.
I watch her frustrations confront the men, then subside into tears. And blow me, before anyone can respond, she ups and scarpers with her gear, leaving me to face the mess.
The roomful of men overlook my presence and set to arguing among themselves. Either Ana has tweaked an inflamed nerve (in which case she hasn’t cracked, but played an astute card) or Alberto has genially engineered this clash for his own purposes. Or they both plotted it. Or trouble has been long brewing like a staff-room cuppa tea. You see how secure my grasp on these matters is.
In fact, they do consult me once, about the difference between a credit and a loan, but I have not the slightest idea, so they return to ignoring my presence. Without understanding the conflict, I can’t find a point of entry. Anyway, my Spanish would disintegrate under pressure and be replaced by some horrible hybrid, like Margaret Thatcher hectoring in French.
Yet, residual pride, the bit that still requires me to parody the professional, is pushing me to intervene, an attempt at reconciliation for the record, because on most points the group seem agreed. The debt, they say - what debt? And I'm with them. Mario once told me that for every dollar the Japanese so charitably donate, they recover five in vehicle and machinery sales. And the British have had an unpayable national debt since Napoleonic times, the point being that it should remain unpaid. Who are we to demand kilos of flesh from these artisans?
One thing is clear, though; the maskmakers come from different stock than the alteños. Racially similar, but these are the urban cholos, who've strayed from their roots. Once the vanguard of a near-miss revolution, they are now self-centred, soft-centred. They could prove useful to Pancho at a pinch, but the artisans of Villa Victoria cannot be counted on.
Money, ownership, control, is their concern right now. Should the group abandon Copcap at the annual assembly in a month’s time? And Alberto, draping himself in his silkiest smile and a mantle of reason, is whipping these differences into a fight. The opposition is centred around an undistinguished, roly-poly, little man, who ever so gently dissects the record of Alberto's term in office.
I’ve visited a range of truly humble rooms in the last six months. Everywhere, the occupants respect their space, binding the wormeaten benchs, taping broken windowpanes. On the top floor of Alberto’s watchtower, the newness and cost make the workshop worth destroying.
A bar-room brawl breaks out, bare-knuckle fighting not sparring. Calculated mind you; as far as possible, the masks and materials are exempted from the fray. It’s an action-movie matinée, lacking only the popcorn. But then a window smashes and someone yells “Extranjero fuera,” foreigner out. Albert has already disappeared and, yes, the tide of violence is washing my way.
Bastard, he’s fled through the scrapyard, pulling the ladder up after him! I can see one end sticking over, too high to reach. Soon the men will pour from the workshop and I’ll be trapped on the terrace. I race down the stairs, intending to escape through the forest.
Past the women (family, clan, servants?) who are ladling soup into bowls. And if they’re shocked at the sight of a panicked gringo waving as he flashes by, I’d like to see their faces when, presently, they carry lunch up.
Down beyond the kitchen, stacks of refuse rot on the track to the woods. I light an Astoria, ready to run should anyone pursue me, but it appears that I’m not the target of the anger. No sounds of battle encroach to this level.
Now that the adrenalin surge is ebbing, annoyance kicks in. At myself, for mismanaging the situation (there should always be a salvaging ploy) and at the maskmakers for misdirecting their energy so absurdly. The urban cholos will never again unite in struggle, for all the traditions they maintain. With their contraband markets and stores, they are bourgeois.
And while we’re on the subject of innocence, let me quote Julio. According to him, the topography of La Paz is explained by the fact that the altiplano was once completely covered by water. Then a mountain-sized plug collapsed at a point above where I’m standing. Yes, look up and from this angle, you can picture it. A thousand cubic kilometers of water per second, or something inconceivably thereabouts, ripping and gouging through, and the Chukiago crater was created.
Of course, Julio advanced this theory in the days when we used to talk. I fear that my cautious advances may have scared him off. He’s taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts and loose trousers. He avoids being alone in my presence. When operating on fantasy mode, I assume this is a final resistance before the dam of his repressed desires bursts open.
Well, enough pining, forest ahead. Odd that I’ve never come across this place. You’d think the locals would use it as a park or a resource, yet it seems quite deserted. The city’s below, an assortment of cubes and boxes splayed about the canyon. See, there’s a path cutting through and I should emerge at Pura Pura. Good route, this.
But, what a grudging apology for a green area, a pack of greedy eucalyptus and ungainly, threadbare pine, cocktail sticks with attached fuzz. And that’s an offal stench coming off. Why does human excrement smell so bad?
In we go, my antenna bristling.
Used toilet paper litters the sandy path. From a hollow over to the left, a whisp of smoke curls. Although the trees are evenly spaced, the wood is dark and dreary. I’m drawn to that patch of blue there, not flowers nor fungus, what is it? My daft urge to investigate.
A small dog yaps wildly and three men appear out of the makeshift tent, running towards me. All have knives. I’m so surprised that I don’t move. The tall man with scarred cheeks positions himself between me and the path. Forest folk, brigands, I think, Robin Hood taking from the rich - which, by their definition, means me.
“Buenas dias caballero, bienvenido,” smirks the spokesman. So, I’m the horseman again, dismounted and defenceless this time. He extends a grubby hand, palm upwards. “A few bolivianos to spare?” I should explain here that the man’s referring to money, not his countrymen, the same principle the French use when they count francs. “Don’t have any,” I protest, though truth is I’ve plenty, but no small change. Fine, let the mugging commence.
Except this is a very courteous affair, involving, first, an invitation to share his woman (for a small fee), but when she pokes her pitted face out from behind the blue plastic, I scrap all notions of loitering within tent. The tall one then offers, at knifepoint, a half-litre bottle with a jagged neck. The colourless, odourless liquid might be stale water until it explodes in my mouth. Germs obviously not being a problem, I take another swig.
When I regain consciousness, I find myself by a pond. No, I exaggerate, by a pool of brackish sludge that bubbles and burps. The sun is still high but I’m shivering in my underwear. At least the outlaws have left an alternate outfit, filthy torn jeans and an unravelling sweater of seasick green, fair trade. Barefoot, scrambling through weeds, down scree, clutching at branches, I nurse the rope burn around my neck
Weird. Despite my situation, all I can focus on is Ana’s game. How she trapped me into coming, screwed the meeting and then dumped me in this shit. Like a mouse on a treadmill, I clatter the words of that cumbia song round my pounding head. “Traicionera, mentirosa, engañosa.” - traitress, liar, twister. Wonderfully easy to transfer blame, so reassuring and utterly compulsive. At this rate, I might yet become a cumbia fan.
The railway track leads to the station, deserted for the past few years. Sold to the Chileans and then abandoned by them - another brilliant move to revive the national economy. But its emptiness is convenient now, as I sit in the gutted Victorian waiting room amid dust and cobwebs, weighing my options.
Which are few.
Not a cent, sorry, not a boliviano, to hand. Too far to walk home, I’m weakened, don’t know anyone in town - apart from Tzipi.
You’ve gotta be kidding.
On the Art of not Dodging the Avoidable
Ding-dong, short, long, short, beep - beep - bip - bip - beep. Dammit, can’t remember the code that gains entry to the Israelis’ pad. And while I’d be glad to postpone facing Tzipi, reactions from people around town suggest I’m in need of immediate assistance.
The sight of a barefoot, destitute gringo clearly undermines the locals. Those whom I’ve asked for help, recoil, tut and spit, flatten themselves against doorways, make the sign of the cross. Actually, I could become quite proficient at this panhandling business. But the blisters indicate I have no sole for such a barefoot life.
In the half-light of the hallway, I don’t recognize the man who opens the door, nor he me. Then something about the hunched body, the claws doubling as hands, those bulgy eyes that stare and suddenly blink. Gotcha! It’s Yod’s unlikely Cuban partner, lizard-man, the Havana Gila. He lets me in.
Upstairs, some effort has been made to massage the chaos. The living-room is cleanish almost and, remarkably, a scent of grass does not hang in the air. Yod, seated on a full rucksack, is conducting a meeting. Glancing up, he cries, “British” with irony and some warmth. His clientele, Israeli refugees from el Lobo, a couple of European girls too, concentrate on packing supplies into a crate. No sign of Tzipi, so I can shirk the unpalatable a while longer.
Taking his own time, Yod finishes compiling a list before he comments on my appearance. “My friend, this is your punk fashion?” Gila snorts with delight, swivels his head round the room to ensure that the Yod squad are suitably amused. I set to explaining how I mugged myself.
“An idiot, just like Tzipi says. She’s told me all about you.” I bet she has. Nevertheless, Yod goes into the bedroom and returns with a pile of clothes. Fear of the gal hasn’t cured my desire, I can tell that when trying on her bright blue parachute-silk pantaloons. The kit also includes one lurid, throbbing Hawaian shirt, subtle as a day-glow sunset, plus an orange hat and broken leather sandals. Yod has a wicked sense of humour.
Over strong coffee, I listen in. The trip commences this weekend, two nights on the riverbank, three in dankest jungle, hammocks, bearers, snakes, spiders, alligators, malaria provided. One of the British girls is describing the state of her stools (runny and unpredictable) - she wants out of the adventure. But you agreed. Well, I didn’t realize how bad my guts were getting.
The Gila whispers to Yod, whose eyebrows dance.
“Whas-yer-name, you travelled much in Bolivia?”
“Been to Coroico once.”
Yod, in a fantastically fluid motion so very reminiscent of his girlfriend, springs to his feet and swaggers over. “Then come with us to Rurrenabaque.”
Tempting, but I’ve lot to do, evaluators arriving, groups falling apart.
“I can see you need a break. You’re working too hard, man, and there’s spare place in the jeep.”
No time, I’m afraid.
“Never be afraid. One day, two days. You can take a weekend, can’t you? We normally charge $50 a day. To you, it’s free. Trip of a lifetime. What more do you want? I like you. Coming?”
Yes indeed, irresistible offer, thank you. Any kindness is a bonus these days.
“Good. We leave Saturday, five in the morning, from here.”
Yod and the Gila exchange winks.
La Paz is so archetypically third world. Outside the apartment, a gang of five workmen hammer and chisel at the cement pavement, arduously revealing the course of a rusty pipe. The busy junction is cordoned off, stalled traffic paws and brays. Later the show will move to the next corner.
And that beggar woman in front of a bank which is surely going to collapse within the year to the enrichment of its off-shore stockholders. At least in the Alto, we all wallow in the same muck. Really, I lose altitude each time I come down to this city.
I’m walking through the town centre like a psychedelic parrot, more than ever pissed off at my misadventures. Tuesday, this has to be Tuesday. Oh fancy that, the Immigration Ministry is open late. I could trump the day’s disasters with a little visit to register the loss of my ID. It usually helps to dress sombrely, but right now I couldn’t give a flying fuck. We’ll just see what effect these clothes have.
And, no joke, I have lost an important document - the visiting card that Waldo Ventura gave me at the football game. The one time I used it, the guy claiming he was a plainclothes policeman, saluted and walked away fast. Now my little talisman has vanished in Pura Pura forest and I’m going to denounce this robbery to the Man himself.
Striding boldly into the lobby, as inconspicuous as a model horse within the walls of Troy, and as harmless, I hope. Even at this hour, queues snake around arches, officials stamp papers with a flourish, money changes hands and heads are turning as I mount the stairs.
Shirtsleeved lady cop, uniform hung over a filing cabinet, ignores me while she paints her lips, gazing into a handheld mirror. When I bluster, she acts superior, then aggressive and finally tries to fob me off onto the Tourist Police, whoever they might be. In this costume, I may look a fool but I’m not a tourist, dear.
She’s about to press an emergency button to summon help (I can see her finger sliding under the table), when I happen to mention that I’ve lost something belonging to my friend Waldo Ventura. Her startled whisper echoes along the ranks of desks - el capitan Ventura, su amigo del capitan es. “One moment,” and she retires to the office.
Picking up her mirror, I am blinded by my reflection.
“The Captain no longer works here but he’s requested me to attend to your case in any way that I can.” She assumes my passport has been stolen, though it’s safe at home. But the staff all agree that I do need a functional, pocket ID and, with a flurry of goodwill, photograph and fingerprint me. Is this a good idea?
“Please come and collect your card next week, sir,” and I suspect she also wants to salute, checking herself only because my outfit is so frankly ludicrous. “El Capitán would like to remind you that you promised to visit him and his family.” This last message is far beyond her comprehension, (in her experience, dignity and respect come clothed in suits). Must be like bowing to an ape. However, discipline overriding incredulity, she will file the incident under national security and forget it.
But I remember the yellow and black markings of the Strongest football team and wonder if, by this one capricious act, I’ve disturbed a wasp’s nest.
So what other goofy gaffe can I add to Tuesday’s woes?
On the bus to Mario’s, it does occur to me that entering his building in this garish plumage might be uncool. His appalled face confirms my stupidity. To compound the error, a clutch of conspirators is crowded into the small single room.
Rigoberto sits spectrally upright on a hard chair, medicine-man Alejandro is preparing a potion on the gas-ring. “Waliki,” says the latter, Aymara for good. “ Though I didn’t expect you to turn up looking like an election pamphlet.” Orange and blue apparently correspond to the colours of a particularly corrupt political party.
“He’s attempting to be clandestine,” cracks Rigoberto.
The condor and the fox totally unsurprised by my sudden arrival.
“You knew I was coming,” I blurt out.
“We read the coca,” the lanky man admits.
“.........And then summoned you here,” concludes Alejandro, chuckling. The revelation seriously freaks me, the more so since I cannot decide which man is playing Don Juan and which Don Genaro. On cue, my stomach aches below the navel and I’m drenched in sweat.
“I was just preparing this for you,” the curandero says, passing me the hot drink. “Now listen, carefully.”
But I don’t recall a word of what they say, the drink perhaps, or hypnosis of some kind, though an impression does remain of tall tales. Charred herbs smoulder in a dish. I stand ready to leave, cleansed and spritely, suddenly aware of the absurdity of Yod’s outfit. From a trunk, Mario hands me his second-best overcoat, completing the day’s wardrobe.
The emperor has new clothes.