Ok, peeps, this is it. We've had a request, from Bo Nesto, no less, to finish this up, so here goes. Sorry about the delay. No excuses. Been fun.
A Twitchy Business
Shut tight, this could be a security-van delivering cash to the bank. Open to the elements, as now, the jeep’s an armoured beach-buggy, six Israelis and a Dutch girl strapped like parachutists to the sides. I get to sit up front.
The snarling vehicle climbs the mountain steadily and I’m shivering in my summer clothing. “Knew you’d forget,” laughs Yod, his American accent thickening in the thin air. “Cold first and then heat.” He takes a hand off the wheel to pass a fleecy jacket. Not an encouraging sign when mere acquaintances anticipate your errors.
Yod points to the rocks piled by the roadside awaiting the next breakdown in negotiations between government and peasant union. For reasons of his own, he carefully indicates each checkpoint. Chukiagillo on the edge of the city, a confusion of cops and vendors, Unduavi, roadblock at the heights, bristling with narcs and soldiers, Yolosa (pronounced ‘yellow sir,’) a truck-stop that is evidently being watched. And Yod is so fascinating throughout this drill, that I almost forget to fret over the dangerous parts of the deadly Yungas road.
Caranavi at noon, Yod sends the tour-party in search of lunch. Meanwhile he and I fill the tank with gas, then drive beyond town. I comment on him waiting so long for a first blow of grass.
“Am I suffering?” he grimaces, skinning up. “You should be in my place. Remember the older guy in the jeep trying to listen to our conversation.” Yeah, I exhale, the smoothie leaning over my shoulder. “Army major, rounding up deserters. Can’t smoke in front of him. Word might get back.” To whom?
Well, one joint leads to another. Caranavi, a genuine imitation of a town with a mayor, a square, high street and stores, will keep the gang occupied. Concealed in tropical growth, we settle to watching the truckfuls of mahogany charge uproad towards the sawmills of La Paz.
Yod rises, walks a few yards, summons me over. “Look at this ‘don’t-you-touch-me’ plant.” Right, amazing, the slightest contact and a ferny leaf curls up in fright. Didn’t know plants could react like that. Nor that Yod, who’s no shrinking violet, would have such major problems.
“The guys he's looking for are near Rurre, out of the heads on magic mushrooms.” He explains about the Zebu cows brought over from India and their dung from which the fabulous cubensis mushrooms spring. This is a novel take on Yod - botanist, ecologist, philanthropist even. “I’ve helped them, ‘cos I understand why they’re doing it. My country is small and here you can space out.”
Dark, lithe, authoritative, assured, Yod stretches, exposing a mat of hair from belly-button to chest. For all his sympathy, I wonder if he’s the one who’s revealed the location of the merry trippers. “Better get back,” he yawns, reading my suspicion. “Our passengers’ll be waiting.”
While the others are already travelsore and distracted, the major scrutinises us calmly, exhibiting the poise I always associate with Tzipi and Yod, product of the same training camp. He registers we’re stoned and trying to hide it, then climbs into the back of the jeep.
The road flattens into dusty, red earth. I retain the front seat while Yod, driving relentlessly through the glutenous afternoon heat, continues to educate me. He names individual trees on the green hillside, identifies the illicit coca plantations, laments the mudslides and the logging, boasts how the Israelis founded the eco-business of Rurrenabaque.
“A friend got lost in the jungle beyond the Tuichi and was rescued by a hunter. In return, he taught the local how to organize river-tours. He told him what gringos wanted to see and now twenty years later.....”
“The place is full of Israelis.”
“That bother you?”
Yod prods each time I fall asleep during the night; the price of privilege is endless vigilance. At last, misty dawn discloses Rurrenabaque stretched along the riverbank, Zebu cows grazing on the foreshore and motor canoes riding the swell. I’m dropped at the Hotel Santa Esmeralda with instructions to take a double room. The party have other arrangements in which I am not included.
“Walk, enjoy yourself,” Yod says.
“And the boat trip.”
“You will trip, don’t worry. See you later:”
Very much later. Well, despite the malarial toilets and ditches of cholera, Rurre is a friendly, teeming place, a market town, point of departure for the river traffic. I have no difficulty in passing the hours contemplating the heat flow, until a totally inappropriate lunch of fried banana, rice and fish extends my siesta into coma.
Late afternoon you’ll find me on the river-bank, crouched, examining cow-dung, thinking about all kinds of bullshit. A short, pyrotechnic sunset, and I retire again to the hotel. An overhead fan operates after nightfall, creakily stroking the bloated air. The patio is a poor alternative, plant-infested, crawling with insects and book-wielding travellers. Rain closes that option, anyway.
So, I’m fairly bored by the time Yod reappears close to midnight, soaked and alert, claiming business, hard business, lots of work to get through. He sets to rolling a number, which he presumes will dissolve my ennui and, of course, it does.
“Hey,” he announces, “There’s a place I want you to see, very special. Feeding alligators and stroking snakes is for the tourists. Come work with me tomorrow and I’ll show you something real.” Oh, well, I sort of liked the idea of the standard jungle tour, but I’ll smother my disappointment.
When the hotel fans turn off, we bake to the sounds of the night, drunks ejected from a discoteque, then rain hurtling against the tin roof, invading my dreams like a battalion of mad drummer boys.
Yod lays a rain poncho across my bed without further comment on my lack of preparation. Too early for a served breakfast, we nibble on biscuits and, once in the open, drink the downpour.
To board our canoe we must walk the plank over rising waters. Yod hauls me up the slippery, plunging gangway, deposits me under a sheet of plastic in the bows. The pilot is checking the motor.
“Your job is to watch out for logs,” Yod yells into wind. In this fog, I wouldn’t notice an aircraft carrier, but turning a blind eye to the task, I manage to look upriver until the rain eases, whereupon enormous trees, towering out of the mist, command my attention. Vegetation rampages along the shores, strange cries of agony haunt the cool air.
“Howler monkeys,” mouths Yod, nearly upsetting the canoe with a dancing imitation. The pilot, a stringy birdlike fellow in shorts, laughs dutifully and fingers the rifle by his side, the one he must use to ward off the alligators, or perhaps the flying pirañas Yod joked about. Then he shouts and urgently alters course
“There’s a fucking log! Lucky we didn’t depend on you,” scoffs Yod, causing me to doubt my currently unexplained, most-favoured-companion status. He shakes his head in disbelief. Finally, the pilot turns right into a tranquil side-river. Were it not for the deisel fumes and rasping engine, this could be idyllic. Massed foliage hints at infinite powers, dripping vines splinter the sun, impossibly bright birds squabble and flit.
Rounding a bend, we are confronted by a flotilla of launches and canoes moored to what appears to be a paddleless Mississipi steamer, various decks high, embellished with shiny-white railings, elegant columns and Uzi-toting guards. Our pilot cuts the engine.
“What is this?”
“Motel, a love-hotel, where you go to have sex, like Tzipi was trying to show you.” Below the belt, though I’ve been expecting the blow. “Can’t you read? Tuichi Motel, wanna stay? You can buy yourself a woman for a few hours and I’ll join you later.” No thanks, Mark Twain meets the Godfather, weird vibes.
We land beside the flotel, exchanging thumbs-up with a couple of the gorillas (Yod appears to know the passwords), before marching through thick jungle on a track that ends at an enormous clearing.
For all the logging paraphenalia and smell of fresh resin, this place is no timber yard. Closer inspection reveals strange pits and sulphurous vats. Workers in shorts, their bare feet wrinkled, carry buckets of foaming green liquid which they empty into shallow tanks. Seems to be my day for asking, “What is this place?” And Yod, open, informative as ever, tells me it’s a farm, though I see no cows unless they’re sheltering behind that airstrip.
“Stay here out of the way and wait,” says my dear friend, leading me to an edge of the clearing that borders on dense overgrowth. The shade harbours biting black flies, midges and mosquitoes, all ferociously aggressive, the smallest biting hardest. I know better than to scratch, but swatting also encourages them.
In any authentic ethno-botanic adventures, this is when a friendly indigenous appears, leading one through the tangle to a specifically insect-repellent leaf and teaches how to prepare a soothing lotion. Instead, I get smirks from the busy workers when I waste my matches attempting to ignite the soggy vegetation. As for Astoria smoke, well, these bugs are vampires and nicotine addicts too.
Eventually, a farm foreman arrives and casts surly glances my way. I am escorted from base camp to the start of a winding trail that emerges at a wide sandy stretch of the river. Given that I have as much sense of direction as a compass in a magnet factory, I do hope that Yod finds me. Interestingly, I never doubt that he will.
James and the giant beach. Neither food nor drink. A heat so sticky and gross that I think of bathing, but am afraid of being swept away, even in this slight current.
As well that I don’t, for when, centuries later, Yod and birdman chug along, the first thing that they shout as I race relieved towards them is,
“Stop. Don’t tread in the water. Stingrays under the sand!”
Our second night is spent in what Yod calls a wildlife sanctuary. The pilot tends his boat, Yod’s visiting a girlfriend and I’m confined to a tent in surroundings not open to to description after our two-hour hike through the darkness.
Yod, coming to say goodnight, only confirms the menace I already sense. He informs me of a jaguar that roams the camp by night. “But I brought you a good supply of firecrackers. Just light one and throw it if you hear anything.”
“Sure, at the first roar.”
“Hey man, jaguars whistle.” He must know that’s stretching belief. “True, I swear. And wow, have I got something else for you.”
He produces some coke from his satchel. I dunno, pal, don’t use that nose-fuck, fuck knows. I enjoy being part of the universe, not its sole proprietor.
“Suit yourself, but I’m gonna ask you a big favour. There’s something I need you to do for me. Like taking an important encomienda back to La Paz tomorrow.” He uses the Spanish word for ‘commission’, but no prizes for guessing what it might contain.
“I’m not going to be your mule, Yod.” Though I have a feeling I’m gonna be his ass.
“My friend, we do a deal. Message from Tzipi. She wants to know if you’ve learned to defend yourself yet. Good, all yours, she’s waiting. I’m going to be down here a month.” And he hands over the packet, gift-wrapped in crinkly metallic paper. Even by torchlight, the purple birthday logo, the yellow balloons and insanely happy clowns dazzle. Feels like a kilo, spot on.
Sleep escapes me for a variety of reasons. The package. Those occasional snuffling noises around the thin membrane of the tent. I prefer not to think what’s out there in the huge breathing darkness, but let’s hope it’s one of those cows (in a wildlife sanctuary?). And, of course, Tzipi notions provide an all-night erection, though I do desist from spilling my seed. On this hyperfertile ground, you never know what sort of monstrosity might spring up.
Awake till morning, when I receive my instructions. What supreme beauty in this spot, the immense rainforest majestically backdropping the gardens and chalets (how come I got a tent?). I’d love to hang out, but the noon bus it is. I know, don’t get caught and don’t talk if you do. Carlo will meet you.
For a few quiet moments over wholewheat pancakes and fresh coffee, I converse with the American woman, a curly-haired blonde whose name I never ask. “Squatting,” she replies, “Until my title deed comes through. Did you sleep well last night?”
“No, a damned bird was singing all night.”
“Oh, you mean the tree-frogs,” jeers Yod and I wonder again at his urges to humiliate and control. And yet I would probably take this encomienda, without the perks on offer, just to please him.
He presses into my palm a crumpled envelope containing dried human ears. “Mushrooms,” he confides. “When you’re in a real cool, nice, relaxed situation, take them,” which is to say, not now.
Rifle still within his reach, the pilot makes it plain that I'm on my own, ordering me to the prow, for the balance he says, though I'm sure I’ve seen canoes with plenty of passengers in the rear.
After picking up my belongings from the Santa Esmeralda, I eat a last meal and sit by the ticket office, watching the tourists compare brochures and buy rolls of film for their jungle trips. My ticket shows that Yod made the bus reservation on the very day of our arrival. And he’s taken care never to be seen with me in town, despite devising the ultimate in package tours for my benefit..
The springless bus leaves an hour late, thoroughly pre-heated to a temperature which no breeze can alleviate. Anyway, a broad woman with babe and toddler, occupying a seat and a half, blocks the open window. The sensation from the aisle is like being locked in a dusty sarcophagus, then strapped to a rollercoaster. The driver begins the cumbia torture.
This bus company has invested in a new stereo system. The more I strive not to listen, the clearer the songs sound. Here I would like to state my tolerance for almost all the music in the world, Samoan yodels, Sumerian sambas, Siberian throat wrestling - the lot. And then draw a line around the inadmissable, heading the list, cumbias.
What bugs me most is that such corrossive lyrics should come gift-wrapped in merry tunes. Mind you, the same could be said of the purple and yellow packet I’m clutching. Having no brilliant concealment ploys, I’m chancing the purloined-letter strategy, which, for those who haven’t read Poe, requires placing the hidden object in the most conspicuous place (my lap). This is hard on the toddler, whose mum has constantly to smack his hand.
Adrift on time/space continuum, twenty-four hours from La Paz, maybe longer since a tyre has just popped. Passengers off, baggage down from the roof-rack - the familiar routine. The driver and his young assistant wedge flat stones, the hydraulic jack wheezes, the interruption lengthens into stoppage-time.
I’ll write a letter to Geordie and Sarah, but they’ll have to share this single sheet of paper. Imagine the negotations - you read it first, no you, let’s both ignore it - until Leo, bounding down the stairs, snatches the damned thing. And what should I tell them? My part in the coming revolution, next week’s Copcap evaluation, how Yod tricked and then enlisted me as his courier for the sake of a pointless entanglement with Tzipi? They'd love that bit. Typical, so typical, they’ll mutter.
Hard to explain the intricacies of my Bolivian life in a letter. I’ll stick to describing here and now. Leafcutter ants bearing the day’s last trophies, a gangly white spider by its trapdoor, sunset as viewed through the dusty panes of the bus. The message to London is no pasa nada - nothing happening - wish it were true.
Throughout another sleepless night, I have time to review my capacity for foolish moves, not least concerning this package, growing weightier by the hour. There’s bound to be a search at one of those checkpoints, if only to catch a small-timer and prove how efficiently the security forces are battling the drug scourge.
Meanwhile a hundred tonnes a year must be leaving these landlocked shores, and not a squeak from the US embassy, no posters of wanted drug barons, the newspapers do not speculate on routes or amounts, unless consignments are accidentally intercepted. The business is all wrapped up.
Over dawn coffee in Caranavi, I buy yesterday’s newspaper, so as to have something to accompany the glossy birthday parcel. “U.S. promises further aid to combat drug-trafficking,” screams the headline. Not till tomorrow, please. Here in Caranavi the forces of order are still abed.
At Yolosa, I am feeling yellow sir, but the revision is cursory. Unduavi, not far from the high pass, precipice one end, tunnel at the other, vegetation already succumbing to the mountain chill, that’s where the crunch is going to be. Those soldiers in camouflage fatigues have a professional air. Will such a obvious trick fool them?
I admit to panicking when the troops clamber aboard the bus. Luckily, the baby’s bawling distracts her mother, so I have a brief chance to push the parcel under the arm of the sleeping toddler, who’s too young to face charges. He’s wanted that packet since we left Rurre, though I doubt he’d appreciate the contents.
The square-jawed sergeant actually pokes it before moving on, and that’s the end of the adventure, apart from a final rocky mountain breakdown on the summit. As Yod did not offer his spare jacket for the return leg, I nearly freeze admiring the snow-topped black peaks.
At Chukiagillo, the woman and kids get off and who should take their vacant seat if not the faithful Gila. He receives the packet glumly, attempts no smalltalk until we reach Villa Fatima but remarks as he’s rising, “Just testing your nerve. It’s only flour.”
“Great, I was thinking of baking bread tonight. You can give it me back,” but he’s scuttled away, clutching his prize.
Weigh Too Much
Had I been nabbed during the supposed coke-run, I tremble to think of the consequences. But in springing the surprises, Yod did reduce anxiety to a minimum. The build-up to this evaluation, however, has been excruciating. No-one likes to be judged and I’m all too aware how weightlessly I’ve been floating around this job, zero gravitas.
The evaluators met the bosses yesterday, since when Edmundo has called in sick and Osvaldo, all fidgety twitch, is upstairs reprinting reams of bogus reports. The Copcap groups, on the other hand, have reacted with indifference, arranging neither meetings to impress the visitors nor field trips to entertain them. Well, in these uncertain times, travel is hardly recommendable; roads in the altiplano block and unblock. Even so.
The evaluators are not a couple. Poala, an Abba clone with implanted Wagnerian genes, is an utterly capable, ice-cool blonde who wears a power suit and claims she’s Finnish. Wim, tall, angly, Dutch, has the beard and leather elbow patches to prove he’s an academic. Today Poala is elsewhere, thank goodness. Wim’s at the long table, scribbling in his notepad.
I'm ashamed. Here in the abandoned great hall of the people, the beer stains and unwashed tea mugs look squalid. A musty odour abides from the millucha, and though Miguel is swabbing the floor, he declines to touch the cobwebs around the dusty windows. Some busy rooms do retain their grandeur when empty; in others, the energy escapes through cracks and dissension.
I quite like Wim; the guy’s upbeat in an abstract way, though lacking a personal touch and his Spanish is nonexistent. So I can’t argue when Teofila, whom the directorio have sent as their sole representative, requests, “Please, Jaime, you deal with him.”
“No hay problema. By the way, these jumpers you’ve brought, they’re great. The trees and sunset go really well together."
“Thanks. It’s a design your friend Sandy suggested. Not that el señor evaluador was interested when I showed him. Well, I’m going to brew some coffee. See if you can discover what he’s thinking.”
The trouble is Wim waffles. It might help if I had a glossary for his techno-spiel. You know the stuff, enterprise development and community outreach, program cycle management and credit methodology implementation. But I don’t share his enthusiasms, so the conversation has turned rather one-sided.
I want to tell him that decoding Copcap is easy, way too simple for intellectuals like you. Listen pal, this is the truth: cooperation, creates dependency. The money we receive binds us. Our projects favour the relatively wealthy while ignoring those in need (Faustino’s cholic bull and Alberto’s watchtower come to mind). As for capacitation, useless without genuine political change. Such are the areas I want to discuss, but he won’t respond.
“You have read my report, Wim?”
“I’m sorry, my colleague took it with her,” he says strenuously wiping a pair of oval glasses and reverting to jargon, impregnable within his razor-wire parameters and fortified frameworks.
But, at least he's different from the school inspectors who used to sit hostilely, critically, observing my classes. This evaluator is distant but dotty. Maybe I should cross-examine him.
“Who do you work for, Wim?”
“Oh,” he says, almost emerging from cover, “I’m employed by various processing entities.” That would be sausage production or meatpacking?
Retreat to the kitchen where Teofila is resplendent in her pink blouse,rose embroidered white shawl and thick folds of deep-green velvet skirt. How can the guy prefer to sit by an empty table and write?
“What’s going on, Teofila? I thought we’d arranged a project commission session for today.”
“Everything is suspended, Jaime, until the asamblea. The groups are deciding on their strategy.” Ominous without conveying much.
A Hornblower metaphor pops into my head. The good ship Copcap is floundering, the captain sick with scurvy, first mate up on the bridge rewriting the log, mutinous crew missing, just when inspectors from the Admiralty have come aboard. We’re drifting rudderless, mainsail ripped and flapping free, no-one left to sew its seams, so it seems.
“Fine. And what am I meant to do with our guest for the remainder of the day?”
We peep through the door. Wim, resting a reinforced elbow on the grand table, is deep in thought.
“Fresh air,” suggests Teofila. “Take him out. You could walk over to the clinic. The doctor’s starting his vaccination campaign this week..” Oh my God. The jewel in the crown. One mother and both her kids queuing hours to be insulted and jabbed by an incompetent doctor and - Vanesa.
“Excelente. I’ll do it.” May as well enjoy the last few days afloat.
“Take Miguelito with you,” she suggests
“OK. One moment while I check my desk.”
Gingerly upstairs, on tiptoe to the cubicles, evading Ana who’s been stalking the margins of the evaluation, desperate to influence the proceedings, but impeded by not speaking English.
Good, Miguel’s collected letters from the downtown post office (one can hardly expect door-to-door mail delivery in the Alto). And see, a reply from Joanne. Miracle, an immediate, post-haste reply from my usually disorganized mother.
A month back, I sent her a postcard of the coca harvest, hunched figures delicately picking the sacred leaves, in which I offered to pay her fare out. Now a scribbled reply (not to a bank, cable Western Union), from which I deduce financial straits.
Joanne’s visit will not simplify my situation, of that there’s no doubt.
Imagine throwing firecrackers into a meditation hall.
The Alto intimidates our evaluator. Seeing it anew through his appalled gaze, I can sympathize; the earth pounded senseless into adobe, arrayed at right-angles to the cosmos when according to Bertie One-Stone, shaman of modern physics, even empty space is meant to be curved.
That Wim’s an enthusiatic lensman, I’ve guessed before he extracts a camera from its dust-proof case. Perhaps the activity will help accomodate the Alto to his field of vision. Myself, I don’t take photos; this writing is a snapshot.
So, he shoots intrusive pictures of stomping adobe-makers, women in hats, a kid lamenting his lost kite, meagre markets. Miguelito runs behind, apologizing to any offended bystanders. For alteños, being photographed merits full attention, a stern pose in the face of eternity. I redirect Wim to the slanting shadows, the nameless streets, the walls, stones and sky.
Impelled by curiosity and the search for a defining image, he strides on, leaving Miguel and I behind. I’m no plodder, but in the Alto rushing from anywhere to somewhere else is pointless.
Pit-stop for cigarettes and coca, Wim announcing a distaste for both stimulants, surprise, surprise. Still, I’m hoping the gritty wind has scoured some of his protective layers and we can communicate.
Just tell me how I’m doing, Wim.
“I would advise you to optimize your impact proactively.” You would?
Let’s vary the angle of enquiry.
“And what's it like working with thisPaola?”
“I have never seen that woman before. She just attached herself before we came up to the Alto. I do not think this is her profession. I am doing this all the time,” he sighs. Yes, I can imagine.
A white jeep halts, spraying pebbles like shrapnel. Ignatz, racing between masses, jumps out. The black leather-jacket asserts his political credentials (he’s now el coronelito’s representive to the Alto, no less), the flowing hair is quite poetic, his face idiotically radiant.
“You haf talked to zem?” he explodes, staring into my eyes.
“I have no influence over the groups.”
“Soon, it is very late,” he murmurs. “And I vill varn you now that some gentlemen are askink of you.”
“Interior Ministry,” he splutters, and lurching to the jeep, slams the door.
“What an extraordinarily strange person,” remarks Wim, recognizing this time the obvious. He’s had no warning of our local nutter; when I walk now, I instinctively choose routes that avoid the churches.
But it’s my turn to be astounded as we scamper across the loose gravel of the river bed. Yes, Miguel confirms, the building glistening yellow and blue in the distance is indeed our ramshackle clinic, freshly painted. Word of the evaluation has spread and Beto’s taking no chances.
The doctor’s freshly ironed labcoat serves to neutralize his pallor, much as the drying paintwork almost diguises the shortcomings of the project. But Beto isn’t attempting to inject any of the patients (how did he bribe them all to come?). The pencil in his hand trembles just checking their names.
It’s Vanesa who pokes methodically at the line of children and babies, and marvellous she looks in her stiff nurse’s uniform. There’s little space for manoeuvre in this room. Still, Vanesa, starched and crinkly, contrives to squeeze past me, compressed breasts lingering over the contours of my back, her loins sending a direct-current, high-voltage message. Received; over and out.
Miguelito, ogling, winks.
The exertion of the excursion has exhausted Wim, so we take the long way home on a bus that creeps to the Ceja and back in search of promising traffic jams. At the office, Teofila recommends coca tea but he needs persuading.
“This is legal, Jim?” a question I remember also asking once.
“Afraid it is, lad. Drink up. It’ll revive you.”
Paola awaits upstairs, having commandeered Edmundo’s office. Entirely at her ease behind the desk, motionless in the leather-backed swivel chair, she comes straight to the point. “The agency that employs you do not consider your reports very informative.”
Wim interrupts. “This agency, you say it’s an umbrella group.” He consults his pad. “Volunteer Organizations for International Development. I know of most world development operations, but with this one I am not acquainted.”
If the admirable Wim smells a rat, so do I, noting as I doodle, that the initials of my sponsors most reassuringly spell V-O-I-D.
“I also find it unusual,” Wim continues, “how James was recruited without any proven track record.”
“These matters can be discussed later in private,” she menaces glacially in perfectly modulated English, forgetting to fake the Scandinavian accent.
“Don’t you find this set-up absurd, Wim?” I interrupt, determined to take the chance to clear up some of the matters which have bothered me.
“That is not the problem I am identifying,” replies Wim. “I have seen much worse. At least your projects exist.” Ah yes, the horror stories - millions spent on counting flamingos, libraries for the illiterate, dead souls claiming housing benefits.
But my next outburst, “Admit it, Wim, Copcap's a farce. The funding produces absolutely nothing,” is a mistake because I sidetrack him into theory. Project money is never wasted, he meanders and continues along the lines of donors creating value by spending on capacity building initiatives. Paola reasserts control of the interview.
“I feel the problem can be redefined,” she cuts in, “by giving this young man a fresh job description.” Why am I reminded of the paint-job over at Beto’s?
“Agreed,” nods Wim. “It is my opinion that James needs a new title for the changing circumstances. I suggest, ‘Head of Oversight’.”
“A very appropriate choice of words,” coughs Paola, attempting to choke back her laughter.
I’d love to clarify their references to imminent change, but at this moment, first-secretary Pamela enters bearing a portable phone, as if it were the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter
“El capitan Ventura, para ti.”
“Hello Waldo - what? - Saturday - teatime, yeah - it is very English, yes - informal OK - Achumani, no idea but I’ll find it - sure, a pleasure, I suppose.”
“You do have important friends,” remarks Poala. And how the hell would she know who Waldo is? Not just the perfection of her English; it all rings untrue.
“Do you come from Rovaniemi?” I enquire casually.
“Somewhere near there,” she lies. You see, my dear, I just happen to know the wooden city of Rovaniemi on the edge of the Arctic Circle, travelled there a few years ago during the summer vacation. There’s nowhere within a hundred miles of the place for you to live.
What put Rovaniemi into my head?
Oh yes. Last week on one of the Especial buses that commute from Villa Abdullah to the Alonso, I saw a sticker above the luggage rack. Rovaniemi it read, inevitably reminding me of Lothar.
I was hitch-hiking to all points north when I met this disconsolate German youth by the roadside. He’d been stuck three days without a lift, a victim of history’s heavy hand. The Nazis had burnt Rovaniemi as part of their scorched earth policy. Each passing motorist wanted to know where Lothar was from and he’d innocently told them.
We travelled together, Lothar and I, camped together, slept together in his one-man tent and .....
“Daydreaming, young man,” snaps Paola. “I asked you when we might expect to see your programme plan.”
That will depend, my impeccably false Finn, on how circumstances shape.
The Deep South
Down, down, from the deceptively barren plain, through the circus of La Paz and down again, on narrow smooth curving graceful freeways, past the river of the dead dogs to crumbling canyons and suburban depths. Ever since the Spaniards first plundered this land, their successors have striven to corner all power. Here in the zona sur, that dream at last fulfils itself.
The elegant residential streets loop from broad avenues. I seem to have walked hours, wilting under an infrared heat, while pimply kids cruise by in their dads' air-conditioned autos the occasional SUV. High brick walls protect the modern mansions where glass and disharmony predominate at great expense, as does security.
The policeman in the green sentry box lowers the volume on his crackling, cumbia-laden radio. That I don’t carry any ID concerns him, renders him semi-alert. Now he’ll have to use the radiophone and check on this scruffy foreigner who offends the dignity of the household. Waldo had specified informal dress, but this is Achumani.
The comatose cop reluctantly scowls me through to the driveway, where a retainer is polishing the Mercedes (tinted windows, no licence plates). At its side, an immaculately clean station-wagon waits to be preened.. The house, like the neighbourhood, is charmless and pointedly big.
It’s my opinion that a mansion should be surrounded by acres of land. Yet the tiny afterthought of a garden huddles between building and wall. One Aymara gardener is watering the few sad shrubs while another shaves the miniature lawn. They sneak a peek at the unlikely guest. With or without irony, I salute a statue of the Virgin in her stone and plaster grotto.
A maid, frilly black shirt, black dress, dark stockings, spotless white apron, opens the door before I can touch the bell. She leads me through the hall to a small room, indicating a hardbacked chair. By now, I wouldn’t blink if a liveried footman appeared. How many more members of the servant underclass labour here?
Nice room, if you have a taste for the gaudy. The colonial painting of angels is an original (I’ve scraped a fingernail over the canvas), beyond the budget, one would have thought, of a minorgovernment bureaucrat. A heavy, gilt-framed mirror hangs behind the chair, though I doubt whether guilt is often experienced in this household.
Solitary, pondering. Why have I accepted this invitation into enemy territory? Out of curiosity, to spy, or am I the last of the malleable independents, however much I pretend to go my own way. And their motives? Judging from the Yod escapade, no-one invites me for my scintillating wit.
Doors are banging. Well, in this environment they thud mutedly. New guests are announced and then the summons. I enter the salon, steeling myself not to react. Waldo actually removes a hand from his trouser pocket to shake mine, the others do not. Introductions are overlooked.
The middle-aged woman, whom Waldo later refers to as his cousin, continues to sip coffee through the mask of her make-up. A vaguely familiar gentleman, wearing dark glasses in the dimmed room, is pretending to read his newspaper; he does not glance up. The handsome fellow in white slacks cradles a tennis racquet and whisky. I am not impressed by the expensive casualness of these people, nor disturbed by their rudeness.
But how might you feel if you found the Queen sitting next to you in the pub and nobody batting an eyelid? Or when you catch grandmother in bed with her gigolo?
Yes, Edmundo, propped against the fireplace, takes me off-guard. He is not sick; he’s pale, drunk and bitchy. “So, have you enjoyed plotting against me,” he slurs. “Still trying to be a hero to the natives?”
“Edmundo,” Waldo interjects, “You are making our friend feel uncomfortable.”
“Your friend, not mine. Prefers to sit in the mud with his peasant conspiratorss.”
The men are impervious, you might even say they’re shameless. They choose to pour more drinks and ignore Edmundo. But the cousin is amused; she twists her lips and screeches low like a hunting owl, then launches into the usual dumb questions - where are you from? how long have you been here? do you like this country? - before assuring me that I’ll soon marry a nice Bolivian woman.
She really must be the unexpected visitor, because the others know exactly who I am, down to the details of my bank account, friends and sexuality, I doubt not.
“And when they’ve finished using you," Edmundo resumes, "They’ll eat you. You do realize they’re cannibals?”
“A drink, young man?” enquires Waldo.
“A cup of tea, if you have one, with milk please,” which starts him reminiscing about London and the marvellous Arsenal team of the ‘70s, in florid Spanish since he won’t risk his Ingleesh in front of peers. “You recall those times we had together, eh Edmundo?” he gushes. Aha, so you two go back that far.
If the occasion is meant to intimidate me, I remain underawed. The sitting/drawing/dining/living room is a joke. As uncluttered as the start of the Boston Marathon, it carries no cultural weight for all the ersatz louis-whatnot sofas and matching chairs, family portraits, silver knick-knacks, fragile porcelain vases.
“It will not be so pleasant the next time we meet,” muses the tennis partner, curling his lips into the semblance of a smile - though these zona sur residents may boast perfect orthodoncy, they only rarely show their teeth. “In this country, we have severe penalties for sedition.” He twirls the stem of his glass the way he might carress a pair of electrodes to the testicles.
Languid mind games on a Saturday afternoon.
“A few reports, however,” he adds, “and some information on those you happen to meet in the course of your work .........”
A small plastic card is being passed round the room, inspected and returned. I receive my promised ID, valid over the next five years for all legal requirements within the republic of Bolivia, though they can’t expect me to last that long. In exchange for this admittedly useful item, I have gifted my mugshot and fingerprints to the authorities.
“Oh yes, whatever happens, do carry on,” adds public personality, whom I finally recognize as the worse-for-wear subprefect from the anniversary by the Lake, minus coke stains on the moustache. Edmundo, now slumped against the sharpish contours of the antique sofa, contributes a last stabbing gesture. “And don’t think naivety will save you this time.”
Waldo has pulled a bell-cord and the stately maid reappears. As she escorts me into the hall, I hear Edmundo muttering, to the clink of ice-cubes, “Bastard! He’ll get what he deserves.”
Young trees, weeping willows and acacia, line the paved streets. Twenty-five years ago the Alto and the South were both empty, wind-swept appendages to the city. Same age, now rungs apart on the social ladder, the downtrodden living on the heights, the upper class in the warmer regions below. Despite some attempt at landscaping, these pampered suburbs cover the dust as a finely woven rug might conceal a desert.
To the west and east, crumbly grey cliffs confine. Further south, the dirty river drops through a canyonland wilderness. North is the city which the sureños would love to supplant and, out of sight, entirely out of mind, the Alto.
They don’t need fences to protect themselves here. Three roads in and a couple of escape routes to the airport, the Irpavi regiment camped in their midst for muscle. Power and privilege encapsulated in the choicest of schools, clinics, restaurants and malls, foreigners welcome provided they service the machine. From their luxurious southern headquarters, the UN, World Bank and most NGOs struggle to eliminate the poor - sorry, that should read, eradicate poverty.
A clean-up squad in green uniform is sweeping gum and poodle-shit into black plastic bags. I’m sitting in a concrete plaza (even here parks have yet to be invented) when I spot the slowly moving, plate-sized object. A pet tortoise escapes, determined and unswerving, conscious that its freedom will bring inevitable hardship and danger. Yet on it trundles. How very Aymara.
Waldo and company assume they have created a safe haven, exclusive, defensible. But if that airport should fall, their den becomes a trap, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
I fancy phoning Tzipi, see if she’s free for a bout of wrest and re-creation.
Time to sharpen my wits.
Eight o’clock, morning of the asamblea. The ground floor is packed. Rigoberto’s aides have locked and chained the double entrance gates, forcing arrivals to stoop through a small opening and, once in the yard, be scutinized. This level of seriousness outstrips my ability to concentrate. I lean against the office building, observing the manoeuvres, the turbulenc and breakdown.
Delegates hassle Faustino, demanding their credentials. He spreads the lists over the grand table and, licking the point of his pencil, checks, rechecks, issuing the name-tags singly on squares of blue cardboard - number, name, group.
Outside, breakfast is being served, dry bread on a tray, sweet coffee from a steel urn. Doña lidia paces the queue, scolding those who attempt to receive double rations, though some have trekked day and night through the impassible countryside. The catering crew (orange tags for them) satart on preparing lunch; having cut inordinate quantities of onion, they turn to shelling bucketfuls of peas.
Key players prepare. Elvira stabs a calculator, Ana thumbs files, Alberto is practising the smile. And that piercing whine comes from the speakers; if I know anything about the Bolivian love of volume, proceedings are going to be transmitted live to the neighbourhood and beyond.
Doña Amalia, hawk disguised as sparrow, gauges the chaos and decides that the ground floor can no longer accomodate this crowd. She directs a squad of men to carry the vast table into the yard, but it has the proportions of a football pitch stretched some and refuses pass the office doors. Eventually the table is angled through windows. The crush eases. Faustino's problems, however, do not.
Apart from the breeze that threatens the paperwork, he's under seige from an irate young man who must be wearing his grandfather’s suit and protesting that his documentation is valid. Mates circle. Angling for a distrction, Faustino catches my eye, beckons desperately.
“Hey Jaime, you’ll need one of these.” He mops his brow and hands me a white card, badge of the non-voting participant. Raising the pencil stub, he enquires, “Bien, so how are we going to describe your functions?” More than ix months on, and the head of the directorio still isn’t too sure what I do. Ho, hum.
It’s OK. I am spritely and revitalized after hours clasped in Tzipi’s extraordinary embraces, prepared to face the day’s challenges with the long-term optimism of a mayfly.
This asamblea is the maximum authority, that’s been the mantra over the last few weeks. The ship of state sails once more, deckhands apparently in control. Socios they call themselves, associated partners, bound by a constitution and their shared responsibility. Today a dozen delegates from each group will hear the annual reports and elect a new directorio. Trouble is expected.
Over in a corner of the yard now, working my way through a pack of Astoria, offering cigarettes to the groups as they swirl and parley. A bag of coca is thrust in my hands, I chew. Someone passes a lump of lejía to activate the wad of leaves. Ignored but not shunned, I adopt a cool stance. Trouble is expected. So, if things do turn nasty, I'll quit.
Edmundo saunters in, none too visibly hung-over, and disappears up the stairs to his office. Five minutes later, Osvaldo peers distrustfully from the gateway at the multitude, tiptoes into the sudden silence.
The table, so symbolic and imposing inside, is stranded under a grey sky. Miguel has parked chairs about the yard, but the crowd prefers to form circles of standing stone, separated into their variouis allegiances.
“Five minutes,” crackles Faustino, testing the mike.
“500 years,” retorts the lad in the suit. Wisecrack or agenda?
A tagless Edmundo guides Osvaldo through the throng and settles himself confidently at one end of the table. The outgoing directorio, bunched like disciples at their last supper, instinctively look to him for guidance, an error. So begins much wrangling.
While they’re nitpicking the underbelly of the constitution, I relive my brush with Tzipi. Amid all that tough love, she was almost tender at times, admitted to admiring Waldo, warning me against him, asked insightful questions about Copcap and its characters. Israeli encounter-intelligence.
Mind you, Edmundo’s also quite zippy today. The opening address he chooses to deliver is either tactical or suicidal. “This has been one of our more successful years,” he lies, “but Copcap won’t survive without me. You lack the necessary expertise and the donors will dis...........” Hoots, hissing, clacking, bursts of angry Aymara, calls for order. Mayhem drowns his best efforts at insult. Edmundo sits down, seemingly quite pleased.
Osvaldo survives a little longer in the dry-lane of facts and figures, until a gathering stillness alerts both to the danger. Edmundo rises dramatically, toppling his chair, managing a “How dare you!” before being grabbed. But the ritual ejection is suspended once Rigoberto remembers the car-keys.
“My own personal vehicle,” shouts Edmundo, roused by the prospect of losing property. He glances up and down the street for support. From upper floor windows, the neighbours are enjoying the show.
“A donation,” insists the tall, poncho-clad figure.
“A gift,” the fat man in the suit claims. In the jostling, his cellphone clatters to the pavement. Can’t bend, not with that bulging midriff, would hardly do to kneel before his accusers. So 'Lee Harvey' Osvaldo offers his services and is pushed to the ground, from where he musters a defiant, self-pitying stare. Stones are hurled at the retreating pair.
Ana lasts a full minute, is then marched to her office, minus the shoulder-bag whose contents lie scattered on the table for inspection. Fuera bloodsuckers, extortionists, intermediaries, the delegates shout - out, out! Meanwhile, Faustino and Alberto, have vanished (I'll refrain from saying ‘been disappeared’), taken ill, taken prisoner, who knows?
The skittling of the staff is such a fearsome, inconceivable, absorbing spectacle that I fail to consider how I'll face the wrath myself. Not that I’m nerveless, simply unnerved.
It’s live-wire Julio, blossoming from boy to leader, who first utters the word ‘intervención’, thereby defining the situation. “Yes,” he declaims, “we founded this association for ourselves and we’re taking it back.” Intervenir - intervenir, the crowd clamours - takeover, takeover. “We allowed others in and they cheated us.” Applause rattles like boulders along a flooded river.
I kind of doubt Julio’s creation myth, having always assumed that Edmundo started the organization, but the next speakers tend to confirm it. A glance at our standard, the one we so proudly carried to that demonstration, (yellow lettering on maroon cloth - Copcap fundada 1992) - reveals nothing.
Meanwhile, the darkening sky rumbles. Intermittent showers which have been falling unnoticed, turn persistent. Pools of water threaten the cables. Let’s move indoors, a show of hands - agreed. More radically, Elvira proposes abandoning the grand table to its fate, for practical reasons (space and effort required) and a symbolic one (equality).
The delegates lay ponchos and blankets on the cold cement floor, instinctively forming a circle, squat, then take stock, marvel - at which point someone notes my presence. I should speak before the surprise dissolves, words might defuse their antagonism, but words also complicate.
Elvira strides to centre-ring and punctures the suspense; “Oh Jaime, we forgot about you," she explains. "I suppose we don’t really consider you one of the staff.” Now, do I take that as a compliment or not? Let's just say I’ve cultivated harmless behaviour.
The disaffection is muted out of respect for the Treasurer, though I do catch the word q’ara being spat, Quechua/Aymara for honky, paleface, whiteboy. Fair enough, I’ll accept early retirement. Then Alejandro stands and delivers in Aymara, and by the time he sits down, the men are breathing fiercely and the women shake their heads, whether in denial, disbelief or wonder, I can’t tell.
Alejandro, cultural purist, medicine man, conspirator and prankster, switches to Spanish for my benefit. “Joven, if you are permitted to stay, how might you help us?” It’d be nice to report that a moment of skull-wrenching awareness gives me an oversight into the flow of events. Instead, feet glued to the ground, I stammer, “You’re taking over Copcap.....”
“It was always ours,” growls the crowd.
“Perdon, then you’re retaking the association, and don’t want professional help.” True, true, they shout. I continue, “In which case, we need,” (the shift to the encompassing ‘we’ being my only inspiration), “we need aims, plans, we have to organize. If you do accept me, I promise to prepare, what do you call them, er, seminars, courses, cursillos.” The last one strikes home; “Cursillos, cursillos,” they chant.
In a most spendidly enigmatic tone, Alejandro discloses, “There is something you must teach us, Jaime. What it is, at this moment neither you nor I know.”
I’m not entirely flattered by the general acclamation, nor fooled by their construct-a-destiny game. This is an example of modern string theory; no favours without strings attached. Am I paranoid, or am I being set-up?
I tell the assembly, “A great honour…….. gracias.”
Berta, the inquisitioner, murmurs, “Qué mierda, letting outsiders wash our dirty linen.” We all hear her and some nod in agreement. As well to be reminded that sufferance is wafer-thin and could easily culminate in James the amateur messiah one rainy easter weekend.
And on we roll towards the official intervention.
But shaping the future requires a history. Elvira claps twice for attention and begins: “Some of you members who have joined recently maybe think this is a mutual society, a means of protecting ourselves and our families against hard times, a way to make money. But when Don Francisco,” (who?) “ first taught us to organize, he made us respect the values at the core of our society.”
“Viva el commandante - viva la revolución,” the hall explodes and I’m unplugged, disconnected, Dr. Watson hoodwinked by the obvious.
“Yes,” she continues, “In accepting outside help, we emasculated our movement, allowed it to be infiltrated. At last, today, we have ejected the manipulators. We reclaim our heritage and return to the vision of our founder and leader, Francisco Choque. Wherever you are, comandante, we follow your example.”
Shouts ring out, “Viva el comandante Pancho! Viva la revolución!”
The penny drops. No wonder Ana found her subordinate position so humiliating.
Lidia, bulking huge, Amalia, tiny and vibrant, proceed to explain those sections of the statutes pertaining to the rights of the socios. Intervention can be achieved by a simple vote, nothing further is required since the assamblea is supreme. Strange that Edmundo and Osvaldo should have allowed it to remain so.
The vote to intervene is unanimous, the consequences veiled.
Nourishment first. At such crucial moments, any mama (except my Joanne) would say, first eat. Matters need to be chewed over. Noodles and mince stew piled high, a hot sauce, spoons scraping metal dishes clean, washed down with succulent fruit - oranges, lime, mango. I distribute more Astoria to accompany the coca.
After lunch, fever grips, we unsully, a new broom sweeps. The first casualities are the damned clocks that Osvaldo installed to promote efficiency. Those still functioning, we silence and cart into the rainswept yard to be dumped under the nylon sheets that wrap the once great table.
Eager hands strip the walls of posters, memos, bulletin-boards, photo-displays, copro-babble. Finally, all the offices, including my cubby-hole, are locked and sealed as if plague-ridden. Year Zero is upon us.
Stockholders eject management. Now what? At two-thirty we recovene, the discussion centring on who’s to run the show. Should successors be nominated for the vacant positions?
“No,” exhorts Julio. “the danger is of duplicating past errors. We can simply elect a new directorio as the statutes provide, and there’s our management team without creating another elite.” Once again Julio provides the decisive contribution. He deserves the cheers.
In Bolivia, voting is compulsorary at national and local level. Failure to do so punishable, unlike in the States where you have to plead for the electorate to turn out, then litigate to discover the result. Here, the shakier the structure, the more sacred the right. Elections are a rite.
Being a true democrat, I’ve never voted in my life. So when I’m chosen to observe this election, I need to be instructed on such basics as nominating candidates and the inking of forefingers. To think, despite the skullduggery and repression which have always disgraced Bolivian political life, electoral expertise is maintained and treasured at grass-roots level.
I’m impressed and wary. Copcap is a prize worth capturing, amply funded, able to convene a thousand productive members, owner of this 3-storey building and more. The groups are rivals, as the anniversary clearly showed. But, if this morning was dark and disruptive, the afternoon is a fine example of mathematical chaos, flowing and creative, patterns crystallizing from the source. The shifting alliances express freedom.
Alberto’s companions refuse to participate until their leader reappears; Faustino’s disown him. Others want to bar any person who’s served before. Al revés, say the knitters, right now experience counts. Julio resolves the bickering by suggesting that any nomination can be vetoed by a majority of the assembly.
Alberto emerges from a corner to mocking cheers and laughter.
Given the political situation, some people do not want the publicity, Rigoberto for one. Declining to stand, he invokes the struggle that may anyday overwhelm our little plans, alongside which we are shadowboxing. “And yet,” he storms, “there is no separation. Comrade Pancho intended this organization to work as a model. Our founder had to retire, the dream was thwarted. But now, on a larger scale, we are very close to success. Vote with your head but also with your heart.”
While Miguel and I cross to prepare the deposito, they begin rechecking credentials and challenging nominations. The yard is awash in pale sunlight. Edmundo’s car has been moved inside and parked next to the upended table. Both incongruous objects squat amid the rainwater puddles like polaroid snaps of beached whales.
We unlock the store-room, push sacks to one side, erect two voting booths, station the ballot boxes within them, ready the voting-papers and inkpot, wait. With all due seriousness, let sport commence.
The electors exercise their right to vote in a trancelike silence. Levity on my part is slapped down immediately. On re-entry to the hall, holding the boxes high, I’m met by the wholesome, organic odour of over a hundred bodies, an authentic human smell, comforting like beer factory malt or the embrace of one’s own bedding, in contrast to the jasmine aftershave and peppermint lozenges of Achumani.
Voting slips are counted on the floor, in plain sight. The victors stand in line preparing to take the oath of office. Elvira, Lidia, Amalia, bowlers in hand, hands on chest - president, secretary and treasurer in that order. Another five women, including my staunch ally Teofila and the nosey Berta, also wait for Rigoberto to administer the oath in Aymara.
You’d see these women in the market, some in traditional dress, the rest in hand-me-downs, note their lined faces, work-raw hands, swollen legs and you’d guess their fate is debt, a brutal husband, poor health and early death. If you were from the bourgeous brigade, you dismiss the women as irrelevant. But I am frankly zapped by these mothers of the intervention.
The elected men are interesting too. Alejandro, secretary of culture, brewer of heady potions. The spaced out kid in his grandpa’s suit also makes the grade. And Julio, whom I never realized was a socio until today. He sits next to me as we chew coca, finally reconciled, a brother not a potential lover. “Shouldn’t we consider altering the name of the association?” he asks, continuing to point us in the right direction. “Copcap is tainted. I venture to suggest Machaq Q”antati, the new dawn.”
“Or Pachakuti,” adds Alejandro, carefully recounting the Aymara concept of cyclical time and the importance of the returning eras. I love this; shackles off, sharing a chew, on the hunt for liberation. English volunteer, out of his depths and swimming strongly.
Elvira interrupts Alejandro apologetically, explaining that all the documents are registered in the old name. Our hands are tied, a change would risk us losing everything. As if to parody her point, the sound of an insistent thumping carries in.
We troop en masse to the yard. Amalia opens the small door of the metallic gates to reveal Edmundo accompanied by a ponderous policeman who is swaddled in fur-collared green coat, green cape and clumping boots caked in mud. Looks like he’s migrated recently from Patagonia.
“This caballero claims that his vehicle is wrongfully impounded here by yourselves. Which being the case, I would ask you to return the aforementioned car,” and he brandishes a crumpled paper. They talk like cops in any language, don't they?
Fortunately, the double garage doors are chained from the inside, whereabouts of key distinctly unknown, so we can afford to laugh at the absurdity of his request. And I guffaw with the rest of them.
Had I known that Sgt. N. Huanca (yes, it is pronounced ‘wanker’) would be my arresting officer and unwitting saviour, I might have treated the poor guy with more consideration.
The empty diskette cases say it all. Correspondence, files, reports are missing. We have unsealed Edmundo 's office, but what do we know of the man? Why would someone from his background have taken this job? How could the ‘southerner’ stand the Alto? I can’t even imagine where he and Pamela lunched, let alone sowed their oats. Our one discovery, finding the condoms in his desk, high comedy at a low moment.
Elvira fingers the pack gingerly, passes it to Julio who (I resolve not to dwell on this) shoves it in his pocket and blushes. We stare at empty drawers and bare shelves, the walls stripped of diplomas. “How much money has he stolen?” Julio muses aloud.
“No proof,” says Elvira, shooing her little boy off the swivel chair on which he's deposited mucus stains and a banana peel. “And no way to find out.” Lidia adds.
I tell them about my visit to the south, Waldo and Edmundo linked way back to the start of the little colonel’s régime. "Funny they knew about the intervention before we’d decided ourselves,” Elvira comments. “They were keeping an eye on us, alright."
“Como sea,” whatever - shrugs Julio, “But we need to calculate the extent of the mess. Any suggestions?” So I plug in the computer, whereupon the vigilance commission members (let’s not call them vigilantes), rush in and demand that I stop.
This body, created to supervise our activities until the first directorio meeting, being selected for brawn, is none too bright. And in the interregnum, they interpret any action as untoward. To be fair, we do need bodyguards; expelled parties could attack, the police could raid us. We also need to contact our donors.
Elvira tries to reason with them. Listen lads, Edmundo 's been badmouthing the association (Wim called yesterday to warn us). We could lose our funding overnight. Grudgingly, permission is granted to download the e-mails. All the messages express hyper-cyber-concern and are in English. Don't these projects employ any Spanish speakers?
"Translate," Elvira orders.
Worse than feared.
"Reply at once," she snaps. "Inform the funders that we fired the professionals for their arrogance and incompetence. Make the new situation very clear. Tranquilo, no hay problema. But tell them the files have been stolen by the outgoing bosses. Request copies urgently."
I start at the machine again. The head of the commission, a heavy unsmiling peasant, interjects. "Don't send any messages in a foreign languge. How do we know what you're saying?"
I appreciate his anxieties, but the delay will hamstring us.
Impossible, say our protectors, crossing their arms and shaking their heads.
Julio leaves the room. Two minutes later we hear the crash of a window. Amalia runs in. "Vandals are stoning the building," she gasps. The viligantes tumble down the stairs.
"Work fast," whispers a smiling Elvira. Right, she's the elected authority.
Then we retreat downstairs. The nippy weather rules out the yard and the meeting hall is stripped, inhospitable, table still languishing outdoors. Depressing. Seated on bales of wool, drinking sweet coffee, perhaps we can avoid the void, chatting.
Julio does me the favour of relating Alejandro’s dream, the one that saved my skin (or seals my fate). “He told the asamblea he’d seen you offering coca to Pancho.” But if Aymaras dream in reverse? “He offerered no interpretation.”
“Pancho must have been incredibly young to start the association.”
“Oh he was,” says Elvira. “Straight out of the university.”
“So, what forced him to leave?”
“Well, a pair of Mormons were killed on the Avenida Buenos Aires and Pancho got blamed. It’s said he lost control of the hotheads.”
“Or provocateurs were at work,” adds Julio.
“Tambien, but Pancho had to escape and he’s stayed underground since then, doing what he does.”
“And we’re under suspicion again,” I observe.
“Oh yes, the tension's rising,” says Lidia. "I haven’t seen the country like this in years."
Miguelito's signalling from an upstairs window. Wim on the phone. How are you doing? We’re down the mineshaft without a lantern. He recommends a friend who can prise the backup memory from any computer. Perhaps you shouldn’t have written to the donors, they’re easily upset. Already are, I tell him.
The day's events are speeding up. That honking at the gates is Luis, at the wheel of the Toyota pickup, which, to our embarrassment, we’ve forgotten about. Returning the vehicle is his act of good faith and a bargaining chip. “Please, compadre,” he begs, “I have a family to support.” I’ve seen them, Lucho, and they’re not worth it.
Still, he hands over keys, insurance, copies of the ownership papers, clasps my hand clammily. Jesus, I fear he’s gonna kiss it in front of everyone. Against better judgement and instinct, I agree to intercede with Elvira, but she won’t touch the matter. “For the directorio to decide.” He slinks away.
“Talking of which,” I remark, “has anyone decided what comes first, the meeting or the cursillo?”
“I don’t think we can do anything until the directorio,” is the automatic response, but Julio’s not so sure. “The meeting’s going to be contentious, Elvira. We’ll be better off analysing without the pressure to vote.”
“Very good point,” says Lidia. “If the courses are before the meeting, we might even manage to keep the association together.” And so it is decided, just as Vanesa arrives, stiffly demanding, in her name and Beto’s, redundancy pay.
Has Bolivian labour law suddenly grown equitable? For the middle class only, Lidia explains; very few workers have the benefit of a contract. We leave Vanesa standing in the yard. This ploy of hers could prove extremely expensive, especially when repeated by Edmundo and Osvaldo.
“There must be escape clauses,” Julio speculates. “If we accuse them of fraud, dishonesty, theft, lifting documents, everything. We’ll need a good, cheap lawyer.” Yeah, as in bumping into a vegetarian shark.
Vanesa, smart brown suit and sensible shoes, insists. “This is the report the doctor promised,” she says, presenting me with a spiral folder and a significant gaze that I struggle not to prolong. “Perhaps you could flick through it now, Joven Jaime, see if it’s acceptable.” Once I‘ve read her private note clipped to page three she turns away.
The procession of litigants continues. A spritely, small figure approaches. I know him, can’t place him, until he chirps, “Padrino, no te acuerdes de mi?” The waiter from the wedding, choosing a most awkward moment to press his group’s claim for membership. I try to interest a distracted Elvira in the Diggers.
You never know how things turn out. Some of the vigilant commandos peel themselves from the wall and embrace Don Basilio. “Compañero,” they enthuse and slap the frail little man on his back, causing him to cough and gasp. The place is full of ex-miners. As I’m called towards the telephone again, I hear Elvira assuring Basilio that the directorio will attend to his request, and why not also come to the courses?
“Hey,” Wim begins, “I’ve just been communicating with functionaries of my organization.” Shit, seems that Edmundo told the European Union we’re falling apart and cannot be trusted with a quarter of a million dollars worth of new funds. Bastard! “I will endeavour to induce tranquility,” says Wim. “Go check again your e-mail. Let me know how they are responding.”
With the resolve of nervous maiden aunts, Wim. “Can you cope?” they wonder, implying we’ve been naughty, somehow broken our word. “Be advised that until further clarification, all operational financing is frozen.”
How could they be so insensitive? Having poured a decade’s worth of money down this drain, they’re running scared at the first breath of fresh air. Were it not for the Argentina game on Sunday and Vanesa’s invitation to a rendezvous, I might succumb to depression. Her note reads, ‘Tonight, seven pm, we need to talk.’
The Ceja clock is small, round and set well above the reach of thieves. Three main roads collide at its base. Raucous street vendors hawk, mini-buses vie, pedestrians swarm and shove. As a meeting place, the clock is neither relaxing nor safe.
I don’t see her until she’s upon me, the dark brown sober suit, a flash of cream underskirt, her hand on my elbow guiding us through the crush. Part of me still believes this is business, an attempt at negotiating terms, but her fingertips throb.
Away from the edge, the crowds thin. Neon videobars and discos challenge the dusk, enticing the lonely wayfarer. We turn a corner and enter the nondescript El Dorado hotel, a multi-storey cube - perhaps it has a lounge where we can discuss matters quietly. She signals to wait, approaches the pimpled clerk, slips a twenty on the desk, returns with a key. Rubbing sallow hands, the youth winks.
Our tiny room is almost saved from squalor by her dignity and the residual buzz of all those couples who, fleetingly, horizontally, have lolled within. She lays her bag on the ragged stained pink nylon bedcover, pulls me into an avalanche of avid kisses.
“Run along to the bathroom and I’ll be ready,” she breathes.
The back corridor is awash with moans and sticky endearments. I’m beginning to dig this. For my return, Vanesa lies naked, a dusky Modigliani, one arm arched behind her head, the other reaching for me, a pack of condoms (today’s theme) held between manicured fingers. “I’m a nurse,” she says, “I remember practicalities.”
Greedily she watches me undress.
She’s fuller figured than I imagined, wider hips, slacker breasts, stretch marks and surgical scars. Now, I know it’s deceitful and impure to make love whilst thinking of another partner. But I need just a flash of Tzipi flexing her predatory thighs to kickstart my reluctant member and then Vanesa can take over, draw me down into missionary, rather than submissionary, positions.
Steadily our passion swells from urgent to frantic, to bucking, wild.
“Listen,” I coo postcoitally, “Sorry if I’ve come between you and Beto.”
“No te preoccupes, mi amor, Beto’s impotent. He’s easily satisfied with small favours. What I need is a man,” she sighs, fondling. “Can we meet again next Friday? Every Friday’s fine. That’s when my boy goes to his grandmother.”
“Well, I can’t promise.”
“What’s wrong, don’t I please you? I’m yours now, Jaime.”
The problem precisely. Clingfilm. Oh don’t get weepy, please.
“Maybe if you wore your nurse’s outfit.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you liked that. Next time I will. Of course I will.”
Playing at Home
“A nurse in a love hotel. C’mon kid, are you turning Japanese?”
The moment I swagger upstairs Sandy smells the scene, sniffs the secretions. “Jim, I guessed you were a pervert that first time on the bus, the bag of grass down your shorts.” She lights another incense stick.
And what turns you on, Sandy? But it’s against regulations to grill your shrink. Better to keep confessing. I tell her everything, including the Pancho link, admitting that I hid it from her and why.
“Good decision,” she says, “I’d have done the same. Don’t trust me with secrets, mate. Interesting; you’re consistently making right choices.”
“Then why am I attracting so much heat? All these things happening to me.”
“Well, one thing is your work. That place is the trap. Even so, I’m coming to believe you’re the still centre. Events shape around you. And in this country, that's probably bad news.” Chappie dog scratches on the bedroom door, enters, curls at our feet, stares into Sandy’s eyes with dumb-beast adoration.
"I need your help, Sandy. I’ve promised to give a course in five days and I haven’t the slightest idea what to teach. Stick around, give us a hand, luv,” I plead.
“Dunno, if I can stand this godforsaken place so long.”
“Sandy, I was a joy-rider before. Now I’ve got responsibilities.”.
“Don’t gloat, you creep. Smirking like a cat in a cream-jug, just ‘cos you’re an outsider and been taken in.”
Taken in? In what sense?
Since I can’t rely on Sandy’s discretion, I’m glad she and Julio don’t really share a common language. The flow of visitors has induced them to smarten up the property. With the office atmosphere so highly charged, the inner-core of the directorio prefer to relax round here and this marred house, the classic Alto brick box, is acquiring some identity and a use, out of spite I presume.
So the twin ecologists go downtown to buy a batch of seeds and tickets for tomorrow’s game against Argentina, my treat. I can afford to be generous. On returning, they don’t bother to rest, just gulp their tea and gesture over the freshly turned earth, united in energy and optimism. Soon, there are furrows. What a pair; already we possess a fenced, redug garden and the crazy paving is currently undergoing therapy.
Asunta is vexed, though. Sandy disrupts her routine, will switch off the tv, open the windows to the elements and prepare aromatic, lowfat, vegetarian grub, leftovers, if any, to Chappie. The hound’s in heaven, despite losing his pissing plot in the garden. He follows Sandy doggedly, right into the house, under the nose of Asunta who leans on her broom and wonders whether to risk a confrontation with the immodest young woman in shorts.
So, in retaliation, Asunta pretends that pile of pans and dishes is beyond her powers and I end up washing them myself. Treat the old dear with more consideration, I’ll say to Sandy; who replies, “She’s paid to clean, isn’t she? She can do it in her own time.” But the point is, I’m also confused by the new order. Like Asunta, I’m used to the grim spell this place casts. The last thing I need is a thriving dump.
I’ve yet to learn the house rules, it really does.
There’s even talk of taking Chappie to the football game - after all he dribbles, quips Sandy. In the end, it’s the three of us, an Aussie, a Brit and a Bolo, trapped in the surge at the stadium entrance. Having numbered tickets doesn’t help. Argentina and Brazil are the big teams of South America, attract sell-out crowds though they hate to play in La Paz.
It’s the altitude myth. Until Llasa heads an independent Tibet, La Paz is the highest capital in the world, if it is a capital (study in your own time the respective judicial and administrative claims of the cities of Sucre and La Paz). The Argies complain that running for 90 minutes, two miles up, is inhuman and they campaign for international football to be banned of at these heights.
The argument’s flawed. Moscow’s subzero temperatures, the steamy cauldrons of Rio and Napoli, local food, bumpy pitches, hostile crowds, all create unfair conditions for visiting teams. And yet the thin air does count.
One way to combat the problem is landing a few hours before kick-off, as soroche, altitude sickness, usually hits after twelve hours. It’s a tactic that results in disorientation and heavy defeat. The Argentinians have chosen the other method, coming a fortnight early to train and adapt. Even so, in rabid sound bites, they groan to the media at every opportunity.
Inside the ground, the fans are baying at the cowardly gauchos, cheering the valiant Bolivians. Within twenty minutes the Argentinians, who have materialized from another footballing planet, are 2-0 up and strolling. Battistuta can afford to miss a penalty. The crowd settles into practised resignation. World cup qualifier, a game that matters, we’re on the point of elimination. Tiers of tears.
The shade is already encroaching at our end of the ground, the north. Gazing around the silenced stadium, I remember the sunny southside from where, last time, we watched that Bolívar-Strongest game. I tell Sandy about meeting Waldo Ventura, then lean over her and comment, “That was some coincidence, eh Julio?”
“You believe so? Ana insisted I take you to those particular seats.”
“What! You can't be serious. You mean ....... ?”
“She’s under tremendous pressure. I wouldn’t be in her shoes.”
Traicionera. I’m stunned by the implications.
The Bolivians run, pressurize their opponents, rebound off a forest of bodies, attack again. The crowd empathizes, responds. This is how Bolivia has lost half its territories since independence - defeat in the face of overwhelming odds, the braveheart syndrome. An hopeful chanting carries us through to half-time.
“Nothing much to celebrate on the field. We could start planning the cursillo,” I say. “You’d better let me sit in the middle to translate.” But Sandy won’t swap seats, she’s determined to guard her new friend.
“C’mon Sandy, I see him in a different light now. He’s my brother.”
“Sublimation, pal.” Oh, screw your attitudes and platitudes.
“What am I meant to teach them Sandy? Tell me that, at least.”
“Uh-uh. There’s no magic key. Don’t search for the big question, look for small answers.” Right. I’ve almost visualized this when Julio yells, “Zingani juega,” catching the rumour from the crowd.
Tomás Zingani, nephew of the legendary Zingani, is coming on as a substitute. Bad boy of Bolivian soccer, the scourge of referees and coaches, exiled to the Mexico league these last years, a genius who loves to waste his talents, who can turn a game.
Immediate impact, a volleyed goal within five minutes, 1-2. The stadium considers erupting, maybe the little devil’s on song. “Diablito, diablito,” they sing, and the Bolivian team, with him as the playmaker, suddenly isn’t just jostling, it’s scheming, probing. A collective sigh as the ball whistles over the bar, a fraction from the equaliser.
Are the Argentines running out of oxygen? Julio scowls with concentration. Entirely the wrong moment to worry him about the cursillo. Inspiration will occur on the morning itself, a half-hour before we begin, fuelled by adrenalin.
I like Zingani and his shoulder-length curly black hair, an artist among the twenty-one sensible crewcuts. He darts and weaves, they chop him down. From one of those free-kicks, he bends a stunner into the top corner. 2-2, twenty minutes to go.
This is when the gauchos lose faith and lapse into stereotype, hacking, pushing, baiting, feigning injury, kicking the ball anywhere. Will we do the same when our revolution sours? Sport and politics, politics and sport. Count the votes or tally the scores, same difference. I’m uneasy in this crescendo of nationalistic madness, and join in.
We scream abuse and when our voices crack, rattle our tonsils at the retreating invadors. A winning goal is summoned. Zingani pushes through a thicket of weary defenders to complete his Mexican hat trick. 3-2.
The joy spills onto the Prado. Delirious fans scream, their faces painted in the national colours, red, yellow and green. Rockets and dancing, beer and spirits, the fiesta won’t end till dawn, if ever.
Julio excuses himself, commitments elsewhere.
Sandy heads for where the booze is flowing.
“I could do with a joint, too long without a smoke,” she shouts above the tumult. “What about that Israeli friend of yours?” Tzipi, oh I dunno.
“Why do you maintain such separate realities?”
Because, by rushing from one to the next, I can almost keep the Chinese plates spinning. What floors me is not the way you and Tzipi alternate sarcasms and ironies all evening. That’s girltalk, no man’s land. But when the bedroom door closes behind you two, and I’m left to toss the night away on this lumpy, sticky, tacky, orange sofa, yes, I am humiliated. And her excellent grass only serves to stretch the wound infinitely.