Tuesday, 29 December 2009
CHAPTER 16: It’s our gas
In Jim’s words paraphrased into the refrain
Jumping Jack Flash – it’s our gas
As the fate of the country’s natural resources transformed itself into an issue of national pride, now is an apt moment to compare in greater detail the personalities of Evo and Goni, more specifically the qualities of Evo that allowed him to define the coming agenda and the defects in Goni that blocked his chances of survival.
As already mentioned, Evo first became publically known as a union official in the coca producers’ organization. Already he was slightly out of bounds, coca production being a delicate matter, frowned on by the authorities and the US drug enforcement bodies. But this notoriety did Evo no harm especially as it became evident that he combined his political activities (he had founded his own party MAS - Movement Towards Socialism) with an enthusiasm for playing football and the trombone in his own brass band. What gradually emerges is a public picture of Evo as a secular, informal indigenous leader, on the path which will eventually conduct him to his successful bid for the Presidency in later years. And then came his championing of the wiphala, as an alternative to the Bolivian national flag. The wiphala, composed of quadrilateral subdivisions, made from small squares of Andean textiles, had a very special origin, principally connected to the momentous year of 1992, which is when the combined might of Europe and the States decided that the world might want to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. But, in the event, it didn’t work out like that; to the surprise of the Bolivian and other South American governments, the jubilee turned into a grass-roots assault on the invaders who assumed they could exult in the annexation of previously free territory. In city after city, from Lima to Cuzco, from Quito to La Paz, the gala celebrations were cancelled before the waves of righteous anger unleashed by the effrontery of the trespassers. Fuck Columbus; he thought he was headed for India (which is why the inhabitants of this land were mistakenly labelled ‘indians’), and reached a previously unannexed continent. What is there to celebrate in his error?
And from this rejection of the 500th anniversary, the wiphala emerged in public consciousness as another option which could validly represent Andean awareness.
That Evo had the good sense to uphold the value of the wiphala attests to his accurate reading of the national mood. The messages contained in the various quadrilateral subdivisions are quite subtle, depending on which of the 7 colours of the rainbow form the central rectangle. Red symbolizes the earth, orange health, yellow energy, green production, purple government, blue the godhead and space, and most importantly white, time and harmony. A moveable feast indeed, though the different variants are open to interpretation, Evo’s choice of the wiphala.as the appropriate ayllu flag for ceremonial events reveals an understanding of indigenous values that put Goni to shame.
In contrast, public opinion noted the following gross failings in Goni, which we shall his classify as his Gonerias, if you’ll excuse the crudity of the term. Without doubt, Goni was viewed as arrogant and selfish even by those political allies who remained at his side. For the rape of Bolivia, historically and, in modern times, to the multi-nationals, is branded as a wholesale sell-out by anyone with even the slightest knowledge of current affairs. One doesn’t need to be an international agitator to mark Goni out as greedy for the way his policies have casually increased his personal fortune.
No wonder that Evo has been able to establish the terms of debate on the road to the tragic finale of Goni’s wretched regime. What we are observing here is the demise of neo-liberalism as a feasible alternative to the development of Bolivia and the groundwork for Evo’s eventual accession to the Presidency in which he will regale the watching world with his informal wardrobe (no ties on this man), his secular fancies (he will ensure his future security by reading coca leaves) and surprise onlookers by naming Pancho Choque as his Foreign Minister, to represent the revolutionary stance of Evo’s Presidency. All to come; no hurry; hold your horses.
Chapter 15: The Alto Scandalised
The mock heroic exploits of the Flying Fox and his goon hit squad hardened attitudes among the population at large, especially among the ranks of the downtrodden in the heights of the Alto. Goni’s asinine behaviour had converted him into more than a figure of ridicule, worse than even a traitor, in fact a disgrace to the reputation of the country. Steps were taken, decisions made, it would seem by mutual agreement, or even perhaps telepathically, to rid the stage of this outrageous character. At whatever cost, Goni had to go!
Thus, steps were consensually taken to block access to petrol and gasoline to the downtown vulnerable city of La Paz. Essential supplies of water and electricity also had to navigate the Alto. An accident of geography? Perhaps. And this is why the rulers have always constructed their castles on the heights. It pays to be the one hurling boiling oil on the marauders, doesn’t it?
Of course, it was Pancho Choque who had predicted that the Alto would bring the city to its knees. “The Alto is ours,” he had always proclaimed, and the hidden hand of this revolutionary was clearly suspected by the competent authorities such as Coronel Waldo Ventura. In fact, Waldo even went as far as accusing Jim of being part of the conspiracy (and who really knows what Jim was up to?), but the notion of foreign influences at work is stretching it rather – as if, after all, Goni’s key advisors weren’t also rank outsiders.
No, the underdogs on the heights had taken the decision to oust Goni and his wretched administration. Good for them!
Essential support came from the flanks of the city, showing that solidarity was spreading to other disadvantaged sectors while the privileged zona sewer merely shrugged its shoulders, the snobbish fools. Ah but their moment of crisis will fast arrive, never fear. A perfect storm is brewing for Goni and his cohorts.
Thursday, 10 December 2009
Chapter 14 : Escape from Sorata
The krew were flown back, care of the ever-obliging Huascar, still encapsulated in the drug-induced coma brought on by the ayahuasacar experience, to Copacabana, where they decided against hiring a taxi to the next destination, Sorata, because such expenditure would be way too conspicuous. They still nursed the illusion that they could remain invisible, leaving them no choice but to choose the ‘soft option’ of awaiting public transport in the Ceja. At least, waiting for a bus to Sorata, they were able catch the mood in the Alto of deepening crisis and inevitable confrontation.
But why should they care about Goni’s troubles?
“One last excursion,” joked Koff, “before the shit really hits the fan.” If only it were that simple to ignore the thunder of oncoming reality.
Roadblocks had spread beyond the Alto, and into the countryside, but our pals were fortunate to avoid trouble as they neared their destination.
Sandy, Geordie and Koff, after their strenuous wanderings through the hinterland of the Bolivian experience, were content enough to install themselves in this delightful paradise. Sorata is widely seen as the acme of tourism with a good variety of foodstuffs, even had reasonable coffee available, with a wide choice of hotels and lodging houses (including an ex-Nazi intruder turned hotel proprietor for those with twisted tastes). And if not precisely sub-tropical, it was a least getting warmer for those tourists who had just arrived from the Lake. And what views; from the central square, one could see a hunky ice-laden mountain, one of the giants of the Andean cordillera.
No wonder it ranks high on a list of must-see, must-try-out or “highly recommended” as the Only-Plan-It handbook crows. To even the most seasoned traveller, Sorata is considered essential.
But every paradise has its downside, the mirror image, for to reach Sorata one has to pass through independent indigenous Aymara territory – the much feared town of Achacachi, the dreaded Rinconada stretch that Jim had once marched across. And with the waves of agitation against Goni’s government spreading from the city of La Paz and especially the cantakerous Alto throughout the high plain, it doesn’t take much insight to predict that Sorata with its rich pickings of foreign tourists, nervous and well-connected, would become a prime target.
Indeed Sorata has a history of being besieged in troubled times. On one noteworthy occasion, it had been sacked by Tupac Katari during a peasant uprising as Spanish colonial times drew to their natural end.
Now, with the roadblocks to increase pressure on Goni spreading and as the noose tightened, as good food and luxuries (drink?) became scarce, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the hospitality of good hosts would prove to be wafer-thin. Gradually the sweet beckoning welcome soured. With the routes out now cut, the town was being throttled and the atmosphere has turned threatening.
. Koff, Geordie and Sandy enjoyed the pressure up to a point. Footloose and fancy-free, but then they had no airplane flights to catch, no hotel destinations booked in neighbouring countries to respect. Lucky them!
And yet other privileged tourists were in constant email contact with worried families back home. Not even a postal strike to interrupt communication or cut telephone lines. Modern times, no such isolation is possible.
In the face of so many complaints from abroad, Goni ordered his swashbuckling Minister of Defence, Sanchez Berzain to take immediate steps and rescue the poor, beleaguered backpackers before the reputation of the country was irredeemably tarnished. Or maybe Berzain personally volunteered to prove his fidelity to his leader. Either way, the valiant Berzain suddenly materialised in the sky above Sorata at the controls of a heliopter he had commandeered. Behind him followed truckloads of troops. The peasants blocking the routes in prudently made themselves scarce for the moment, leaving the soldiers free to dismount and laboriously clear the obstacles, ranging from jagged rocks to boulders, out of the road. Helicopters are not machines that function very efficiently at altitude, so how the Minister negotiated the high plain is anybody’s guess, but his contraption was making one hell of a din as he circled the town looking for a site to land. Berzain selecting a convenient field near the center, ignoring the fact that a football game was about to commence. One might have thought that the goalposts, twenty-two players in colourful shirts and the assembled spectators would have indicated to any sane observer that the spot was occupied, but Berzain was on a mission, had higher goals in sight and so with typical pluck, Berzain chose to ignore local sensitivities and land on the pitch, which had been recently mown in preparation for the game.
The chopper descended spraying all alike with lawn clippings, assorted trash and occasional clumps of dog shit. Nor is it any wonder that the surprise entrance was distinctly unpopular and rather than giving the speech he had prepared for the occasion (about how he has arrived to assess the situation on the ground, before attempting to restore the reputation of a vital touristic resource, etc. etc.) Berzain found himself involved in a fist fight with the Mayor.
Our krew avoided all this unpleasantness not from a dislike of football but because they had invented their own mission in the nearby community of Pocobaya, where various of las Maravillas had assured them they would surely receive news of Jim. No further information being provided, this would be their last chance to verify the matter. Taking care to skirt protesters at Ilobaya where the sheer face of a cliff made the road vulnerable to attack from flying rocks from above, Koff, Geordie and Sandy began their excursion first halting by the gigantic statue of Christ with outstretched arms which the good citizens of Sorata had raised to protect them against such times as these.
“Ignatz would approve,” said Sandy, embracing the sandal-clad feet. “But he seems almost irrelevant out here. Let’s be quick. I don’t feel we have much time left.”
“Patience,” advised Koff. “This could be where Jim displays his hand.”
Geordie just guffawed.
Eventually they slid down a side-track into Pocobaya that revealed the community nestled below amid a verdant sea of crops.
“How will we be recognized as Jim’s friends,” ventured Geordie. “The damned tourists are unpopular. They’ve brought so many problems to this town already.”
“I’ve already thought this problem through,” announced Koff, unfurling a rough sketch of Jim’s personal herbstalk emblem that Huascar had shown them in the Island of the Sun. “If this doesn’t prove our friendly status, we’re on the wrong track anyway.”
And sure enough, as they wandered through the various crops, the beans, the towering maize stalks, even the occasional coca plantations, in search of Jim’s prized harvest, local youths approached them, nodded at Koff’s crude poster, and their surly countenances somehow became more relaxed. “Like Jim always said, ‘Keep that freak flag flying, what?’ Can do no harm,” Geordie remarked. And eventually Sandy was able to engage a band of Pocobaya’s youth in conversation about Jim.
“Finally,” said the girl who spoke up for the group, “he introduced us to a crop that we could sell at a profit to visitors and be free of our parents’ obsession with cows and donkeys. Wanna buy?” and she withdrew a plastic bag from her school satchel and offered it to the tourists. “You see,” mused Koff. “All Jim’s efforts were not just pipe dreams.” General laughter. “Not all gone up in smoke!” And to prove their goodwill, the next generation of Pocobayan peasantry shared a righteous pipe-full and advised the visitors to make themselves scarce before the troops arrived and fighting began in earnest.
Vindicated in their confidence of their good friend’s influence in fields they had hardly dared imagine, the krew scuttled back to the town centre where three luxury coaches had been assembled to ferry those willing to run to safety under the watchful custody of a dozen army trucks, where soldiers pointing their rifles aggressively out from the back were urging tourists and other local solid citizens to take this one chance for salvation and get on board the buses. The Flying Fox, Berzain, bloody- nosed after his altercation with the Mayor, was in vehement mood, allowing no back-pedaling or doubts among those fortunate few he had selected for survival. Then he was aloft again in his chopper, promising all the back-up and firepower that his troops could provide, departing to cat-calls and booing from the spectators still ranged around the football pitch. A final comment from the Mayor who was determined to brave the storm on home territory, come what may: “Oh stupid Berzain, don’t forget what happened to the last dignitary who put his faith in flying helicopters!” He was referring to the fate of the late, unlamented President Barrientos the man responsible for conniving in the murder of Che Guevara. Barrientos received his come-uppance when his helicopter was blown-up by a jealous husband whose wife Barrientos had installed as his latest and last mistress. The games played by Bolivia’s power elites (as recounted by Jim in Chapter 8 of tha’ nameless book.)
“I don’t feel good about what we’re doing,” sighed Sandy while entering the air-conditioned bus. “These thugs look ready to blast away anyone in their way.”
“Right,” agreed the boys but they were already too nicely stoned to consider alternatives seriously, and anyway they could see flames spiralling skywards from the hotel of the ex-Nazi .
“No choice. Off we go!”
But how much they lamented their decision when they observed some of their new friends picked off by army rifles at the Pocobaya road-block and even worse when the convoy was surrounded in Warisata, the proud home of Bolivia’s first indigenous teacher-training college, where the panicked troops opened fire quite randomly and managed to shoot an innocent young girl peering out of her window.
And all the while, the Flying Fox supervised the massacre, darting around in his ‘chopper like a demented hornet, gesticulating wildly from above in his brown pilot’s jacket and encouraging the soldiers to continue their awful tasks.
No wonder the krew reached La Paz well after midnight, shaken and aghast at what had been compelled to witness, distinctly unstoned.
Tuesday, 21 July 2009
Chapter 13: The Tide Turns Against Goni.
Throughout the history of this land, later known as Bolivia, yet well before Simon Bolivar was even a twinkle in the eyes of his great-great grandparents, indeed prior to any Europeans crossing into this continent, from the very earliest times, roving intruders laid their hands on what they considered available until the greed of each invader had in turn, by an ironic twist, caused their own downfall.
For example, the Incas so valued the sun-metal, gold, for its beauty that their interest had attracted the covetousness of the Spanish conquerors who subsequently changed their attention to the silver lodes recently discovered in the Cerro Rico of Potosì. Then the surfeit of silver bullion introduced into the European economy caused the inflation that so weakened the Spanish control of their colonies, that one by one they fought for and gained their independence.
And so in a repetitive cycle, in this corner of the Andes, on this fertile high plain, the fortune that seemed to favour the conquerors proved to contain a wicked spin that would make their happy benefactors rue the day that luck appeared to have smiled on them. The Incan and Spanish Empires came to their natural ends, and, as a student of history, Goni should surely have learned how every stroke of good fortune in this part of the world seems to rebound on inept national leadership.
It’s as easy to rely on hindsight as talking through your arse, but one might have expected someone with the educational opportunities of Goni to have picked up some lessons from contemplating Bolivia’s recent history.
On countless grounds, with any number of examples, he should have been aware how each stage of the country’s development led to the loss of territory. For example the rubber boom of the 19th century resulted in the snatching of Acre by the Brazilians. In another case, the rise of guano (bird-shit) for use as fertiliser, induced the War of the Pacific and the humiliating seizure of the Pacific coastline, at one fell swoop changing Bolivia into a landlocked country. And Goni should have noted the role of the British in egging on the Chileans. If not including this in his analysis any alert Bolivian leader must certainly have detected the residual resentment, the folk memory, reinforced annually by parades of remembrance to mark the anniversary of the taking of the Pacific coastline. Every Bolivian schoolkid is aware of this loss, it’s a cornerstone of their growth. Is it any excuse that Goni missed out on this stage of development by spending his childhood and youth in Chicago?
So Goni can be accused not only of ignorance but also arrogance in not recognising the common indignation that the incursion of foreign capital and interests has had on the mindset of ordinary Bolivians. So out of touch.
The next haul after gold and silver comes with a more modern metal, tin. Once again the leading investors are foreign companies. But in another memo from history to Goni, he ought to have noted the career of Simon Patiño, a homegrown talent, who started as a humble miner in Oruro and ended up as a mine-owner with his yachts anchored off Monte Carlo, preferring to ship the ore to his foundry in Liverpool, England rather than promoting income and enterprise for his fellow countrymen. Message to Goni: beware especially of those that forsake the homeland and fall for the blandishments of foreign luxuries. Patiño, though Bolivian, became a byword for a traitor. His heart was not here. His loyalties were elsewhere.
And finally the ultimate lure of petroleum, the scarce fuel so necessary for technological advance, a resource that Bolivia discovers in relative abundance and which has already provoked one disastrous war with another neighbour, Paraguay and caused yet one more crucial loss of territory leading to the liberating revolution of 1952 in which Goni’s own party the MNR took a leading role. Goni beware – learn from history or else become its latest victim. And while on the subject of cool fuels, let’s look at its sister energy provider, natural gas, which is where Goni comes a cropper.
His advisory team would naturally recommend a plan based on economic good sense. The best market for this valuable resource is California where every citizen puts their means of transport ahead of every other consideration, perhaps even their families. Their industries need fuel and the citizens of California will pay top prices to ensure the continuity of production. “Only one problem, ”smirks Tad or Jeremy, whispering into Goni’s ear. “You remember Bolivia is landlocked. The only way to get the gas cheaply to the coast is through Chile. Do you foresee any hitches with sending the consignments through to the Pacific coast by this route, Mr. President, sir? “Of course not,” replies Goni. “The Chileans are in business and will recognize the cost efficiency behind our proposal. Everyone will.”
But, of course, not everyone did, especially the common folk up in the Alto who had the image of Chile the Great Usurper, the overbearing and cruel neighbour who had robbed Bolivia of its access to the sea. So Tad or Jeremy’s bright little suggestion while making perfect sense in terms of economic feasibility, went against the gut feelings of every Bolivian who had ever attended the annual ceremony of remembrance as an impressionable schoolkid – which, of course, Goni never had. A fateful mistake for Goni to add to the other factors of misreading the history of the country which he was supposed to be leading.
‘NO GAS FOR CHILE’ read the slogans on the banners which began appearing on the marches downtown to the city of La Paz. Through ignorance and arrogance and listening to the poor advice of his imported team Goni has succeeded in uniting the opposition to his rule. And with the quirkiness that inevitably seems to attend inept leaders, at this very moment an authentic spokesman for the downtrodden has surfaced.
Evo Morales summed up in the popular imagination whatever Goni lacked. Evo, an indigenous representative who has not abandoned his people, first came to public notice as the leader of the coca producers of Chapare, he spoke Aymara and Quechua, played trombone in a brass band and was even known to enjoy participating in a friendly game of football. With these popular attributes, he left Goni tongue-tied. It was Evo who gave voice to the prevailing resentment against shipping Bolivian gas through Chile and with that, Goni’s fate was as good as sealed.
But Goni is still insisting that he is the constitutionally elected president. So what does he want, the lamppost where Villaroel was hanged by opponents in the 1940s? It’s an available option.
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
Turns out that apart from being another one of Jim’s proteges stationed on their path to spike their progress (acccording to Sandy), Huascar was also quite a live wire in his own right. Once he discovered how reluctant the krew were to return to La Paz and guessed the reasons why, Huascar volunteered to ferry them on to the next stage of their tour and chose the destination himself.
“I suggest you travel to Rurrenabaque. That’s where my father, Don Solon lives. I’m sure he’d love to meet you and I expect as close friends of Jim’s, he’ll have a couple of surprises in store for you,” he explained to Sandy. What he didn’t say was that Don Solon was a practising yatiri or curandero and his surprises tended to be quite startling. But as the son of the resident witch-doctor it amused Huascar to keep quiet about his father’s games. Nor did he bother to mention, until challenged by Koff brandishing his map of Bolivia, the distances involved in reaching Rurennabaque, particularly if they had to avoid La Paz.
Rurennabaque lay many miles to the north-east of the Lake, in almost lowland jungle territory. “No problem,” boasted Huascar, “we can fly there.” As well as his guide duties, Huascar shared with his Dad a tour agency which ran flights from La Paz airport to Rurennabaque for rich tourists keen to avoid the tortuous 24-hour bus journey. How improbably convenient, considered Sandy.
“No problem. I’ll check, but I’m fairly certain there’ll be some vacancies on one of the flights so early in the year. We can divert the plane to Copacabana. There’s a landing strip just outside the town and I bet that not one of tourists will notice the difference,” Sandy translated, while Geordie and Koff swung between bemusement and awe at the skill and recourses available to this generous new friend. “Of course, I’ll be accompanying you to ensure you make contact with Don Solon.”
Now, why did this sound suspicious to the krew? Able but overly pushy was the verdict on young Huascar. Once again, they lamented the absence of any contact with Jim, if only to check on Huascar’s credentials and intentions.
So it was early next morning they found themselves boarding a half-deserted Lear jet on a levelled landing strip just outside Copacabana, and a mere hour and a half later landing amidst the sultry humidity of a jungle runway.
A battered jeep, driven by Don Solon himself, picked them up and took them to the curandero’s rambling house. A series of mini-courtyards spilled off from the main patio in a pattern that convinced the krew of some subconscious meaning if only they could grasp it. In and around the maze of corridors, until a double-door was held open to reveal Don Solon’s inner sanctum, a vast laboratory whence drifted a series of intriguing aromas. Involuntarily they breathed in the herbal scents touched with a tang of danger and the curandero’s voice already sounded distant and distorted. “Let’s get out of here,” whispered Koff. Sandy squeezed his hand in agreement but Geordie blustered, “Probably too late.”
Solon was mixing liquids that were brewing in various pitchers. “Don’t be afraid. Our mutual friend Jaime has asked me to prepare a portion of ayahuascar for you, which is what I’m doing now.” Geordie quivered, Koff blanched, but Sandy spoke out. “ I tried this stuff one time before in Mexico. Ayahuascar - yage – it’s a beautiful, magic trip I can assure you. Don’t be scared, boys. So, who’s going to be our guide?” Don Solon was already handing the stoppered phial of smoky green solution to Huascar. “My son will give instructions and watch over you. No fear. Let go. Happy trails.” Then he had disappeared.
. Koff was still apprehensive but Geordie was all for it. Nobody had eaten anything since that morning, and Huascar insisted they continue fasting. Then he picked up a machete and followed him down to the river-bank where they took a canoe over to the other side. Through the dense undergrowth Huascar hacked a zig-zag path until they reached a clearing where they rested on round boulders. Then Huascar gathered scraps of dry wood and started a bonfire as dusk quickly fell. Suddenly it was night. They listened in silence to the jungle sounds, birds hooting and screaming, beasts scavenging, termites burying treasures in their mounds. Magic, as Sandy had claimed, and they had yet to ingest the potion. Tension built.
As dawn approached, Huascar gave them each half a cup of the bitter ayahuascar liquid and pushed them back onto the canoe, proceeding downriver until he reached a whirlpool near a couple of enormous rocks with snakes carved on them. Huascar skilfully glided the canoe to a sandy bank and they followed a path that he cleared with the machete. Must have been an hour and still no noticeable effects, but they were certainly lost. Suddenly Huascar halts and points into the mist ahead.
“Behold, Cathedral Rock.”
At first they could distinguish no shapes, but soon they are trudging up a steep track, stumbling over obstacles. Then the cathedral shaped rock comes into view solidly, daunting and ominous, though seemingly within easy reach. What a delusion. No sooner has the goal become manifest than the full impact of the drug hits the krew, a sudden whirlwind envelopes them and, to cap it all, Huascar has vanished. Koff collapses in panic. They have to rely on Sandy, the experienced hiker, to rescue them on this horrendous trek, which she does with some aplomb until, that is, the panthers emerge, whereupon Geordie’s courage dissolves. Fortunately, right on cue Don Solon materializes (where did he come from?) and commences to charm the savage cats with his flute. They slink away.
Now the krew are on the summit, a warm breeze clears the air and they realize that the choice of freedom has always been theirs. A telepathic vision unites them to Jim. They see this pair of Khazari horsemen galloping towards the White Fortress. ’So that’s where those dreams of mine come from,‘ thinks Koff, relieved, but still quaking. Geordie plays down his fears, and Sandy whoops, ‘How weird!’ as they re-emerge after several lifetimes in Solon’s perilous, intricate patios.
Tuesday, 30 June 2009
Chapter 11: the Krew Travelling (a) Isla del Sol
After the bacchanalian roustabout in the Alto, Sandy took the decision to set the krew off touring for their own safety, not wanting to draw attention . She’d attended a reception at the British ambassador’s residence (invited as a distinguished Australian academic, no less, although the label of visiting anthropologist now embarrassed her) and as she sipped her Pym’s gin on the calm tree-decked lawn, she overheard whispered talk that a certain fellow countryman was being sought by the Bolivian authorities for offences not unconnected with espionage. It didn’t take much imagination to guess that the subject of this rumour was Jim or that the band of confederates he had mustered could well be construed as Sandy and Co...
With the original objective of finding and perhaps assisting Jim now thwarted by our hero’s obstreperous behaviour, Sandy realized it was clearly time to camouflage their identities under the guise of commonplace tourism.
And surely they would find the tourist trail more comfortable, eliminating the harder questions of ‘why are we here?’, leaving just the simpler issue of ‘where next?’ and with Sarah back in Mayola Road still funding their travel from tha’ book’s steady sales, so what the heck. Though whether she had always been in contact with Jim or was indeed in league posed yet another imponderable to add to the matter of Jim’s present whereabouts and the question of which part of his current conduct was so disturbing to local police surveillance.
The recommendation in Jim’s email of ‘the quite extraordinary pull of the Lake’ proved unnecessary. Yes, Lake Titicaca was indeed special, so vast it felt like the sea rolling in, so high it literally took your breath away, so unearthly when the sky blended with the waters. On the motor launch heading for the fabled Island of the Sun, the krew managed to relax.
But the flight of Incan steps hewn into the cliff up from the landing spot to the tourist town of Yumani proved challenging on the chest and heart at this altitude even though the krew thought they were acclimatized; obviously not, when strenuous exercise was on. There were clearly gradations to the effort demanded.
Sandy and Koff eagerly took up the challenge, forcing even Geordie, dry-retching and heaving spasmodically to resolutely decide on shedding a few kilos from his debauched, bloated body. After the meal of freshly fried trout from the Japanese-funded hatcheries and tourist-inspired potato chips they rested for the night in one of the basic hotels, ready to start on the trails that all led to the Sacred Rock where Mama and Tata (first man and woman) were, according to Andean legend, supposedly conceived and born.
April was now beginning and throughout the Island, the harvest was being collected. Beans and quinua, barley and the inevitable potatoes plus some strange strange tubers that Sandy managed to discover went by the name of oka, were spread out to air on old strips of sacking before being strapped on the backs of mules; no vehicles, trucks, not even horses on this island, “what a relief,” sighed Sandy. The abundance of produce, all accounted for, none of it for sale, though Geordie would like Sandy to insist. What he would do with those dubious tubers, which he would surely find inedible is his own affair. Sandy just shrugs him off.
They discover a tumbledown shack en route that sells stale soda at a price, shelter from the cool wind and the surprisingly strong sun under a torn tarpaulin (“Got any of that sunscreen lotion left,” bleats a reddening, blistering Koff), before the track leads them up a steep hill which enters an isolated village nestled in a lonely, haunting hollow where a meeting of sorts is in progress outside an old church. The Aymara communards ignore the outsiders trekking past. At that moment a stinging hail storm blows in suddenly from the lake and the gathering moves indoors. There being no other shelter, our krew hunker under an overhanging outcrop of rock for a while, but eventually overcome their timidity and move inside. The church was dark and stuffy. They later learned that Christian religion was not a strong belief among these independent islanders. A priest visited here once a year on the patron saint’s anniversary to formalize marriages and baptise the resultant offspring. Apart from this the people relied on traditional practices to face the demands of their fortune.
All this was later explained to Sandy, by the mysterious Huascar who had marched into the unlit building holding a bare light bulb attached to a long flex and then proceeded to take the travellers under his wing. The svelte youth obviously had prior experience of foreigners and their ailments. He recognized that Geordie, for one, had reached the limits of his endurance and immediately shepherded them down to the shore where he commandeered a small boat and personally rowed them toward their destination. Huascar offered them the opportunity to land first on the sister strip, the Island of the Moon, which had been dedicated to the training of the virgins who attended the Sacred Rock, but the strand seemed bare and uninviting, so Sandy insisted on declining the invitation and Huascar pressed on through the choppy waves. Koff later discovered that Moon Island had been used as a concentration camp to lose inconvenient political prisoners in the 1950s, another example of the value of his research and the accuracy of Sandy’s instincts.
The sun had broken through the cloud cover as Huascar again moored the boat and they clambered up the final ascent to the Rock. Huascar was impressively buoyant after his exertions, pointing out the sights of the site. They halted on the approach to the Sacred Rock, which from this angle had assumed the appearance of a gigantic human face. They were straining to inspect the image, when Huascar bent down and indicated a crude outline painted in green on an adjacent boulder. Geordie gasped as he recognised what he was being invited to view. It was Jim’s personal emblem of a herbstalk - grass,dope, weed , mary jane– whatever the codename you might use for it. Here was undoubtedly a sign. They all knew it; Jim had employed this as an exclusive signature. Koff blushed, Sandy laughed.
“ One visitor asked me to show you this especially.”
“ Which visitor?” Sandy asked, though she knew who.
“ An English friend,” Huascar casually replied, “who knew you were coming and described you well. Asked me introduce myself and help you in any way you required. So here I am!”
Thursday, 28 May 2009
Chapter 10 : ACHOCALLA CALLING
Fed up with the intolerance, the baiting & jibes of should-be friends, Joe Louis and Julio went looking for pastures new. They first explored Palca keeping to the heights and then headed down over the Choro highway, approaching the fruitful dales of the Yungas.
But they finally choose the community of Achocalla, very close to La Paz, the alternative Chukiago canyon, underdeveloped for being criss-crossed by a raging meandering river, which in a way is its good fortune because even though the borough stretches down to the zona sewer, no through road has yet been opened, keeping Achocalla free from the encroachment of the rich suburbs down south. Perhaps its residents fear the peasants, the hard-core communards of Achocalla.
There in this haven protected from the harsh winds of the Andean mountain range, nestling between the city and the high plain with its favourable climate, Achocalla had become a thriving agricultural centre. Amongst corn and beans waving in the breeze, Joe Louis and Julio had a certain confidence of discovering a place apart in which to allow them to develop their intimacy.
But, sad to report, agrarian paradises have small town mentalities. Our couple’s careless closeness and lingering looks give rise to unpleasant comments. Following the local saints-day festival, they were run out of town and decided to take a long hike to Ayma (incidentally Evo’s maternal name) pulled in by the lure of the chullpas off in the direction of Pacajes. These chullpas, pre-Incan funeral towers, formed from mortar and stone chips often on raised mounds, were usually ransacked by huaceros (in search of treasure) so that scattered bones desecrated sacred sites, nevertheless exerted a strong fascination over the couple. What were Julio and J.L. searching for? Intangible horizons where they could exist without prejudice. On their journey they were lured onwards by the plaintive chords of a strumming guitar. Eventually they encounter a solitary guitarist camped by a brush fire by the gloomy church of San Miguel who claims that the church has been constructed from the ruins of a complex of a chullpas set in a circle and invites them inside. They find themselves in a tunnel leading into a mysterious cavern opening out in a raging river, but are afraid to advance any further because the stepping stones across the torrent are too widely spaced. Even so, the guide urges them across - and within a flash Julio and J.L. are up on a hill with mounted horsemen approaching who cannot possibly be the representatives of Pacajes, Julio flashes, (no pre-Spanish horses) So who are you and where are we?
All of which ties in with the Khazari dreams that Koff has been having and that he believes Jim has instigated, but Julio and Joe Louis are unaware of any such connection. Let’s leave them be.
Chapter 9– The Potato Fields
“Right let’s sample the potato picking, then. Our leader has spoken.”
Since they had been thrown out of their hotel, Geordie and Koff intended to give Mario a right earful for not protecting them, as Jim’s chosen friends, from the hassles of the management.
“Now you’re going to have to find us a place to stay! Go find us a room, lad, pronto. Somewhere safe in the Alto,” they wanted to say. But coaxing Mario out from the Hotel Turista for the interview was not a simple matter, not with Beto guarding the desk.
So, in the end, they had to convince Sandy, who had unlimited access to the hotel, to arrange the meeting, likewise a complicated business.
“And why should I help you two out?” snapped Sandy.
And for want of any better answer, Koff chanced, “Because we’re in this together, aren’t we?” And this mild appeal had the effect of soothing Sandy, to the extent of dragging a reluctant Mario out onto the street, where he had to endure his roasting from the lads.
Although Koff’s command of Spanish was improving somewhat, it was Sandy who had to convey their needs to Mario, omitting their intense displeasure.
“OK, OK. I think Doña Martita’s family has some space available.”
“Just as well, not with Martita herself,” Sandy explained to the boys. “You’d probably find her too prickly for your tastes. He’s offered to take Sunday afternoon off and accompany you up. Go with him and good luck. But please behave yourselves. Any news of Jim, let me know.”
Thus it was the next Sunday they went up to the Alto with Mario in tow and almost convinced him to talk about Jim. “Es buena gente, nomas,” he hesitatingly mumbled. But why so?
By nighttime, the boys had negotiated terms with the landlady and found themselves lodged in adjoining rooms of a typical Alto apartment block,
“Our legacy from leggo,” joked Geordie in reference the plain style of architecture.
“Not comfortable but bearable,” confirmed Koff.
And immediately they were visited out of curiosity by one of the daughters, who turned out to have an interesting professional sideline, that of a star Cholita wrestler.
The next morning they dutifully march over to the nearest potato patch, where a squad is hard at work and proudly present themselves to the supervisor, who just happens to be an uncle from their household. He takes them on – eager volunteers being in short supply today. But it’s now early March, so they’re mistaken to believe that the potato harvest is around the corner, though there is plenty of work available ridging up the growing plants which are just beginning to flower in a marvellous assortment of purple and white blooms. The potatoes are scattered among various vacant plots, not always aligned to the new houses being constructed, but often planted crossways.
Uncle Miguel sets them to work after warning them to be on guard against marauders, especially mother pigs and her hungry brood of rummaging piglets, all too capable of digging up the treasured spuds, whether or not at maximum harvestable size. “And watch out for kids kicking footballs crushing the precious sprouting plants,” he cautions. “And crazy cyclists zigzagging their way across the plants. Be alert. I’m relying on you.” But then he takes time to the lore and tradition the potatoes, explaining how the original Andean inhabitants used to plant to fool invaders, letting the potatoes go to seed, which are poisonous and letting them mistake the fruit for food. Then the invaders got sick, so it is said, and abandoned the harvesting forever to the indigenous owners. “These potatoes are tough but tricky, like us,” boasted the Uncle as he beckoned to one of the ambulant ice-cream vendors who was wandering among the labourers, and invited cool sweet cones to the sweaty youngsters.
Koff has caught enough of the explanation to repeat the gist to a disgruntled Geordie, who complains wiping his brow, “Bloody hard work this. And I don’t see the uncle getting his hands dirty.” Fair enough. They were later to learn that Uncle Miguel was indeed a rogue trader who gathered seed potatoes cheaply from poor communities and then hived off various parcels to friends, going half and half on the eventual harvest, hiring migrant labour from the countryside to complete the shady deals. Sure, you’d never see him bending down to the uncomfortable back-breaking work. Sure, he just provided the tools, the hoes, rakes and shovels and took his cut for the privilege. So much for the democracy of the Andean potato crop.
Koff shrugged and pointed to the array of abundant greenery. “Imagine if Jim had sown some dope here. Would be well hidden.”
“Too cold here. Wouldn’t survive the nights,” replied Geordie shivering as the shadows of the approaching evening encroached. “Home – don’t know about you, but I’m totally fucked.”
So, exhausted and shattered and starving, they hobbled back to their empty rooms, where fortunately the ancient grannie took pity on these inept gringos and directed one of a bevy of young señoritas to heat up the leftovers from lunch. Against a battery of resident sarcasm from the older generation, the boys gratefully limped past the kitchen, clutching their steaming bowls of the spicy stew, assuming they had retired for the night.
However, one by one, the young ladies popped by, if only to satisfy their curiosity and observe the gringos gobbling up several helpings of their suppers. None of them were non-plussed by the presence of these odd intruders in their household and all of them would answer questions to a certain degree. So the boys assumed that they had met Jim in the past, though they appeared reluctant to provide further details of the experience. Most surprisingly, all the girls in the household seemed to have first names that begin with the letter ‘M’ – Miriam, Mercedes, Maria, Martita, Monica, Mona, Mimi, even the younger brother was called Mauricio.
Geordie was the first to catch on: “Remember that last email from Jim. ‘Tell the boys to watch out for the Magnificas.’ The Magnificent Seven. Well, we must have found them – Whoopee,” he chortled and winked at Koff.
And to cement the occasion, Mauricio surprises them when he lays a bag what looks like good grass on the table, pulling a pipe out of his pocket. Jim’s legacy, wonders Koff. Eventually they summon up enough courage to question Mauricio, but his English is even more basic than their Spanish, and so they are forced to wait until Mona appears. She has spent two years at art school in Bradford, and so in her delightful Yorkshire/Bolivian brogue is able to clear up some of the mysteries of the household.
The evening is taking shape, the grass is super, not mixed with the ground oregano they had endured in downtown La Paz, but on the question of Jim they are all respectful but evasive. “Sure he used to be one of tia Martita’s lodgers - oh he’s not here now - he’s probably travelling somewhere else”. Mona repeats that he’s a great guy, that he organised the shoe-shiners into a union and devised entertainments of an unspecified sort for the older schoolkids. Maria comes in uninvited as they’re skinning up, “Yes we learnt that from him too. Give us a hit.”
It turns out that the Magnificas all have different skills, some musical, others in modern dance, still others artistic, but their forte is the tag Cholita wrestling team they’ve developed at the mulifunctional show in the Ceja. Becoming more interesting by the minute, thinks Geordie.
The denouement, as one temptation inevitably leads to another. Each sister becomes an evening visitor, and some will perform tricks for the offer of a good smoke. Geordie takes to Mona as his favorite (claiming that her dominance of the language has nothing to do with it). When he insists on a demonstration of wrestling tricks in fair exchange for the evening smoke he soon regrets his brashness when ending up tied in knots. A regular relation develops. In bed Geordie’s Friar Tuck figure is revealed as a try-a-fuck persona and how Mona moans.
Even Koff adopts a favoured sister, in his case, young Mimi who makes him content while nurturing his Spanish. But even acknowledged eccentrics such as las Magnificas cannot keep such behaviour secret in cramped living quarters like those encountered in the Alto and ugly rumours begin to fly. Rather than official denunciations, luckily word is conveyed back to Sandy who decides that for their personal safety the time has come for the crew to assume the role of traditional tourists and set off travelling.
Friday, 22 May 2009
Chapter 8: – Goni at Work and Play
Goni is not usually to be found in the Plaza Murillo, where there are altogether too many prying eyes and journalists on the lookout, though he will sometimes grant an official interview to national newspapers from his desk in the Burnt Palace.
No, to track him to his chosen lair you’ll need to go hunting past the new American Embassy (only a short distance away, for Goni psychologically needs proximity to his protectors). Continue to the next curve leading down to the zona Sewer and you’ll probably find him in the new presidential residence. On the same curve, for additional security, is located the headquarters of the Military Police. And there, under the watchful gaze of a lifesize statue of Confucius (the venerable philosopher giving a sense of stability to the proceedings), squats Goni’s preferred retreat; in reality a fortified bunker, where he can hide well out of the public view, with family and very few friends and his select body of trusted advisors.
For the inside story we are indebted to the reports of the privately engaged English teacher who had somehow managed to worm his way into this charmed inner circle. Let’s assume it isn’t Jim. And if not Jim in person (and allowing him access would be another one of those lapses of judgement to which Goni was prone), the individual in question passed on his information to Jim who gleefully relayed details to his friends and hence the magazines for which he wrote.
And thus we have been treated to a full description of the supporting cast.
Let us commence with the wife, who fulfilling an essential role in this traditional family, gave Goni his solid respectability. Always available for dinner parties and receptions, she played the hospitable hostess, dutifully accompanying her distinguished husband. She was capable of keeping the conversation light, entertaining and directed to non-controversial issues. In addition, her family connections had provided a useful hoist whereby Goni ascended the ladder of MNR hierarchy. She assumed her share of charitable duties, opening hospitals and orphanages, attending masses at the Cathedral as required. She always backed the policies of her husband in public and even in private. Not a whisper of scandal could be attributed to her diverse social life. A real asset, doubtless. She would even provide a shoulder for Goni to cry on in his times of woe, eventually accompanying him into exile, as was appropriate. She certainly appreciated the material benefits of his ambitions. But did she ever understand his vision or share his philosophy? A social asset, certainly, but the one member of the inner family circle who possessed the drive that endeared her to Goni and fully shared his view of the world was the oldest daughter.
The daughter was a tactician after Goni’s heart, super-capable of running the show. In retrospect one wonders if she didn’t actually have a negative effect, bolstering his pride when it would have been more advisable to temper his enthusiasm and focus strategies. Indeed, Goni already had marked her as the dynastic heir(ess) which was hardly surprising as the eldest son was another kettle of fish.
They say that Mother constantly sprayed perfumed aerosols around the residence to combat the plague of mosquitos rising from the rogue rivers meandering from the city centre. True enough, but what if she were also trying to mask the smell of illegal substances wafting from her son’s den. Let’s just say that the elder son was a rock n’ roller, the sound of the Doors and the Dead blaring at full volume from his quarters. And therefore useless in the current crisis.
Beyond this intimate family circle, who else could Goni confide in? No cabinet ministers had access to the private quarters, except for the swashbuckling Defence Minister Sanchez Berzain, the one remaining political ally posing as the Fox (of his part in the climax of the saga, much more later) though it can already be stated that the beleaguered President would have been better served by mellower counsel.
Which only leaves the team of foreign advisors that Goni had imported to guide him to his narrow victory in last year’s presidential election. This was the crew who had engineered (squeaked) the 22% electoral triumph and had lingered to overstay their welcome. Those who remained were a sneaky, simpering bunch, much given to secretly filming cabinet meetings through false mirrors and ridiculing the resultant conversations. Their feedback from the February disasters ran on the line of “crisis – what crisis? Our brand is crisis; we thrive on it.” The main part of the bunch answered interchangeably to the names of Tad and Jeremy and specialised in administering unsound opinions such as of course Goni was disliked because the public perceived him as being arrogant. “But, never mind, Mr. President. Stick with the globalization strategy. Make Bolivia a center for world investment. Use your natural resources to tempt foreign capital into the country, and unemployment will vanish by itself...” and the like – the kind of neo-liberal tripe that they’d picked up from the focus groups they’d also been feeding and then clandestinely filming in order to buttress Goni’s monstrous ego.
When it would have been healthier to slap him around the mouth and impress on him the concepts that were circulating the streets - of national pride and dignity. Bolivia had served for too long as a free lunch for foreign corporations eager to combine fast bucks with cheap labour. This was the sentiment of the dispossessed masses in the Alto and already a force was emerging that could give voice to this position – an expression that was seen as humble, incorruptible and authentic – the sound of Goni’s nemesis –Evo.
The concept of Goni at play raises more difficulty, for in truth, weighed down by what he perceived as his responsibilities, he had little time for leisure activities, unless one includes the exercise and fitness regime of weights and devices which he had installed below the conference room to control his body’s tendency to swell. Goni could quite enjoy gathering his confederates around like a bunch of kids in the locker-room if only because it so reminded him of the good old days back in the States. Beyond that, Goni’s chief time of sedate contemplation was spent in the comfortable armchair beside his desk, studying stuffy reports on Bolivia’s progress towards globalisation targets under his presidency or basking in reading reports from the Wall Street Journal about his growing reputation as a leader who has orchestrated a tremendous rise of investment opportunities in mining operations. Dry, very dry. And a somewhat myopic investment- -