A baby on the bus is crying. Out the window an Indian woman sits by a burning trash can by the side of the road. She is not using it for warmth. She just sits by it. Another Indian woman stands by the side of the road surrounded by doors torn off their hinges. They are of all colors, shapes sizes. All destroyed. Does she sell them to people with broken houses?
La Paz is built into a canyon and is really a city of two cities. We are in upper La Paz, which is very high up. As we wind down the canyon you can see the brown houses with multicoloured roofs built into the hills. Way down in the valley of the canyon skyscrapers raise up. At the outskirts of the city the streets are paved with rocks but as we get closer to the center the rocks become black gravel bricks and finally asphalt. The buildings go from adobe, blending into the hillside, to red brick or concrete.
I immediately notice the political graphiti. Somehow Peruvians seem to keep their country clean of it but in Bolivia, perhaps as a result of the recent protests, it is everywhere. “THE VAMPIRE MINISTERS WILL PAY!” etc.
I recently finished the excellent book, Inca Cola: A Traveller’s Tale of Peru. The author travels for a few weeks in Peru and Bolivia in the 1970s. He writes about the political climate:
There is a paradoxical feeling of permanence about Bolivia’s turmoil It is a durable sort of fragility, for, in a way, they have hit the bottom. You feel that it was ever thus and life, now, will go on.
Peru had been strangely different. It was a feeling that life might stop going on, for quite a large number of people, and quite soon. There is a bourgeoisie in Lima and Arequipa – a class which ha done well enough to have something to lose yet not so well as to be able to take it with them on a jet to the US and a Miami bank account. They are stuck and they face a peasantry who are till able to hope and who have a sense of justice to be affronted. These are fertile soils for the revolutionary left and the populist right. It could yet come to civil war between them.
In Bolivia the hateful gods of political and economic blight take their human sacrifices daily, predictably, according to some bleak and unspoken pact with history. Peru has made no such peace with its gods. There is a threat in Peru, that the elements of conflict might turn finally and face eachother. All that threatens Bolivia is a continued threat of despair.
Inca Cola, pg. 109
We get off the bus near the cemetery. It stands with beautiful arches, all the dead buried above the ground in mausoleums. I reach for cities to compare this one with: the hills of San Francisco? Descending into the crater makes San Francisco’s hills seem like speed bumps. The roads spiral in a kind of switchback pattern. You wind up or down, never across and you could never hope to keep control of a vehicle headed straight down. The picturesque vibrancy of the markets of Naples or Old Jerusalem? All of La Paz is an open market and every street corner lined with merchants selling everything under the sun. Everyone sells the same and everyone charges differently. I buy some toothpaste from an old Indian woman who is sleeping at her stall. It was 2.50BS and I pay with a 10BS note. She has no money to provide change. She goes to her neighbors for help but, one by one, they either cannot or will not help her. She wanders the stores with my 10BS note plaintively begging in a singsong voice: “Change me… Change me…”
I purchase a pocket copy of the first Harry Potter book. It’s tiny and only costs a dollar. Bolivians cannot afford the original books so they photocopy them and, to save paper, make the print half the size. It’s really perfect to practice my Spanish. I learn Spanish like a baby: hearing words over and over and only later deciphering their meaning. Now with this book I can finally use the dictionary I’ve been travelling with.
If there’s one thing that La Paz seems to lack it is good, fresh food. In Lima I felt as if I couldn’t walk a block without someone trying to sell me delicious food. Bolivians are chubby but only because they deep fry everything. Even hot dogs are put to the fryer before they deign to step out onto their buns.
I shared a hostal room with a German named Martin. He was very congenial and, when I returned after uploading some pictures to the internet, I kept him up chatting for a few hours and then we went to sleep.
A loud banging at the door awoke me. There was also a sort of scuffling and scratching at the door. I did not know who it was but I remember calling “Hey! Martin!” in a sort of urgent whisper. He reacted, though not convincingly, by groaning. He was clearly awake but ignoring all that was to take place. The banging continued, now accompanied by sobbing: “Let me in. The door is locked…” At first I thought it was the man at the desk but as it dragged on and I began to really wake up I realized it was the man in the room’s third bed. He was completely, wretchedly drunk. He wailed and wailed. The door was not locked, he simply could not find it to push it open for, without a handle on the door, that was all it really needed. I went, timidly, to the door, opened it and slunk back to my bed. After taking a few minutes to realize that he had been saved from sleeping in the cold he stumbled into the room.
Once inside he began to fumble for the light switch. “Apaga la luz! Apaga la luz!” (“Turn off the lights!”) he mumbled. But of course the lights were already off, so he got no help from me or Martin, who was quiet as the dead. He said that for five minutes but I think it was a deception: he just wanted to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. And he wanted to do it loudly. I had a friend back home who, when melancholy was upon him, would get drunk and cry and moan and break things. This was freedom to him: a baby elephant tearing at small trees. I don’t believe I would have understood anything the man said regardless of language. He spoke like a mixture between a baby and some who had lost a close friend, in his case sobriety. He sounded like he might cry or might already be crying. After some success in removing his shoes, filling the room with their smell, he moved on to getting under the blankets. And then, after about 20 seconds of complete silence came his snoring. Loud, drunk snoring. The snoring was like a physical thing. It filled the air with it’s scent, the stench of cheap vodka mixing with his shoes. I could not sleep and Martin tossed and turned a bit. I felt set upon by his snores. I felt as if they were coming out and attacking me, poking me, preventing sleep. I was forced to remind myself that this was irrational, that I could sleep through most any noise and, finally, I drifted off again.
I do not know if Martin did. In the morning Martin said: “That was really too much!” He felt as if the man had lacked respect and felt, through past experience, that had we told the man to shut up he would probably have wanted to fight us. I was immediately transported, again, to Tortilla Flats, the masterpiece work by Steinbeck. The man was Danny, fresh back from the war and trying to get into a fight.
In the book we love him…