Chapter Seven - the UMSA Scene
“ Go join the dancers,” Jim had instructed in his latest email. “You’ll find them most interesting.” Still in a state of shock following the February massacres (latest deathcount 23 and rising) the Krew found no reasons to ignore their friend’s instructions. Important events were in the air and Jim obviously knew what was up. Who could deny the propensities of the man himself?
So, all three of them found themselves, midmorning, outside the beer factory at the exit to the city just at the point where the motorway began. Sandy regaled them with the sight of the inviting windows, surprisingly still intact despite the recent disturbances. As usual, it was the inquisitive Koff who had conducted the basic research and uncovered the reason why so many university students (over 500 of them, would you believe?), many of them nursing hang-overs from the night before, had volunteered to practice these dance steps.
The answer apparently lay with the original neo-liberal President Victor Paz Estensorro, who in the 1980s had conceived the brilliant idea of getting students with their excess energy involved in dancing instead of political activities such as protesting. Whether it was obligatory or competitive, Koff had yet to discover - he presumed a combination of the two elements, reasoning that students would probably forfeit academic grades for failing to attend the sessions and gain bonuses allied to tempting scholarship opportunities for outstanding performances. At a stroke, if not taking the students off the streets ( here they were again, blocking traffic), Estensorro had managed to decoy them into harmless and irrelevant past-times. How Victor Paz then solved the prickly problem of hyperinflation is another story whose consequences Goni was still confronting (oh indeed!).
When Geordie finally comprehended the artifice behind these tactics, naturally he disapproved. But, in contrast Geordie was by nature a sociable soul and as he went along chatting in his limited Spanish to the various participants of the rehearsal, he discovered they were organized around the faculties they studied in. When he reached the troupe representing the Department of Social Anthropology he suddenly remembered a piece of information that Jim had casually dropped his way in one of those intrusive emails. In fact, nothing was random about any of Jim’s actions, especially in the present circumstances. Anyhow, Geordie recalled that Jim had told him that his old flame and unwilling midnight partner was now enrolled as a first year student at the State University (UMSA) and that his field of study was (you’ve got it) Social Anthropology and as a gratuitous tit-bit, Jim mentioned that Julio had come out openly gay, his partner being a gorgeous hulk by the name of Jose Luis. No, there was nothing accidental about Jim, beyond his sexual exploits, and the motives behind the invitation to join the university dancers now became that much clearer. A provocation, if nought else. A red rag to a raging bull. Could Geordie resist the challenge? Of course not.
Among the contingent he readily recognised the pair, exchanging knowing glances, openly touching even, and so Geordie settled in behind them. Julio was a supple, elegant wisp of a youth – all that Geordie expected given Jim’s fervid tastes. And Joe Louis, a veritable mesomorph, built like the famous boxer of that name, his biceps generously flexing under the thin sweat-shirt he wore. Right, if Jim wanted to incite his jealousy, Geordie was game to the challenge.
None of this made any impression on Sandy who was too busy showing off her knowledge of central La Paz. The route chosen by the dance organizers followed the main thoroughfare through the downtown area. The single street, popularly known as the Prado, keeps on changing identity along its course. It becomes the Mariscal Santa Cruz then the 16 de Julio, and even Avenida Arce before heading into the grounds of the University. For some reason, probably based on her insecurity, Sandy delighted in reeling off this variety of names, distracting Koff who was fully occupied surveying the wreckage wrought by the February riots along the way. He observed the burnt shells of the Ministries, the ransacked shops, the trash gathered into half-smoking bonfires and wondered where all this was leading.
Whatever its current name, the Prado was proving too narrow to digest the constant flow of traffic and hundreds of prancing dancers. To the extent that the Mariscal Santa Cruz, in particular, was blocked. This is when Koff, alert to all phenomena, heard for the first time the chorus which he eventually traced to the popular rock group, Black Jack:
“ el pueblo esta caliente y la banda igual..................
la Mariscal, Mariscal , Mariscal Santa Cruz
esta bloqueada por las manifestaciones
de la Perez hasta la U........”
and wondered where the hell the loudspeakers were hidden. This he adds to his list of La Paz memorabilia which he is sending off to Sarah whom he considers the hidden controller behind their activities, the puppeteer-in-chief.
Now the dancers skirt a real demonstration occurring outside the Comibol building which has been surrounded by riot police (freshly returned to their duties). A crowd of protesters has gathered to complain because according the letter of the law the Bolivian Mining Corporation should be promoting State mining operations, but is its assets are, in effect, in the process of being hived off piecemeal by Goni’s own company, Inti Raymi, to foreign businesses on the lookout for rich ore deposits. Meanwhile, safely hidden among the upper storeys of a nearby multistorey office block, grandly termed the Palace of Communication, which dwarfs the only post office operating in town from a basement ..... high up in this so-called ‘Palace’, Goni’s lackeys and associates are orchestrating the auction of the country’s natural resources. This, then, is the true face of Goni’s revolution, as Jim well knows, for he is actively occupied in writing up the details for certain national magazines - which is presumably why he doesn’t have time to attend to his friends – or so he claims.
Meanwhile Geordie and Koff revelling in their status of outsider-dom, are accompanying the merry dancers down all the way to the State University. Both dog-tired but animated for they have been gifted a wad of coca leaves to chew and shown the appropriate manner of doing so. So they are quite content, Koff because he feels accepted and especially Geordie, who is now certain of having identified Jim’s special friend and his bulky, muscular partner, Jose Luis.
Therefore, when the various troupes disperse, Geordie makes sure of leading his friends into the Monobloc (as this leading example of fascist architecture is known), behind his quarry.
The Monobloc is poor, evidently starved of funds in these neo-liberal days when State education is losing out to private universities. The returning dancers hurry past a series of cramped offices where the underpaid, overworked staff struggle to maintain a modicum of standards for admission procedures and the official records for thousands of exam results, reshuffling files across shelves already top-heavy from the weight of paperwork.
In their hunger, the dancers crowd into the already packed central canteen, joining a long line of students waiting to sample the subsidised fare available. The queue takes an infinite time to advance and Koff and Sandy do not have the infinite patience required to await the refilling of the enormous kettle or the replacement of the portable gas tank. They pull Geordie away, so that he loses sight of Julio and J.L. and he can’t or won’t explain the frustration he feels. They compel him to eat a hasty egg sandwich from a señora in a kiosk positioned just beyond the university’s protective adobe wall. (No ambulant vendors allowed within – such academic purity.)
“What’s got into you all of sudden, Geordie?” snaps Sandy. They have entered once again the ample courtyard that surrounds the central block and sat down on a section of turf. Scattered about the yard these tiny pieces of lawn are available, and being used by students who relish fresh air, rather than the cluttered interior during this spell of good weather.
“There they are!” Geordie shouts, as he spots his pair of fugitives wandering back out.
“Who?” asks Koff.
“Aah!” exclaims Sandy, suddenly all too aware of what’s going on.
Geordie is on his feet now and pursuing his prey back in to the Monobloc. He follows them into the so-called ‘Student Common Room’ a large minimally furnished sitting room of sorts, basically a bare shambles of broken furniture and grimy cushions. At the entrance, he grabs Sandy’s arm and whispers, “Jim warns not to reveal ourselves.” But Sandy is up to here with these petty games and, feeling quite cantankerous now, approaches Julio with her hand extended, declaring in passable Spanish, “So, you must be the famous Julio.” Julio nods lamely. “Jaime asked me to find you and introduce myself,” Sandy continues. An embarrassed silence, Joe Louis, distancing himself to one side, blushes, and Julio neither accepting nor rejecting the offered hand, stares awkwardly at his shoes.
Koff and Geordie brush their cushions, sit and settle down to observing the encounter. And Sandy’s bold move pays dividends. After a halting start, Joe Louis especially, seems to accept her presence and the conversation turns to their situation.
“The others won’t accept our relationship,” JL says. That much is obvious. In this packed, chaotic sitting room a space has mysteriously cleared around their circle. Hostile glances bounce off their scene of intense conversation. “Active gay-baiting?” Sandy hazards, but her basic Spanish doesn’t get her meaning across. “Trouble in the faculty? ... violence even?” The boys understand, nod, but explain, “Hasn’t come to that yet. But we’re definitely excluded. Today was the exception because the university has a reputation to keep. We’re not included usually in anything. So we’re considering a move to find a special space of our own.”
Finally Sandy ventured the question she had been holding in reserve. “And our friend Jim?”
Julio joined the conversation. “An inspiration. Have you read the stuff he’s been writing?” and reached into his satchel and pulled out a sheaf of articles he had carefully cut out. On top were copies of a magazine entitled El Juguete Rabioso.
“Most of them I took from here, “ added Julio with enthusiasm, handing over a magazine to Sandy.
“What a strange name, ” said Sandy conjuring with the English translation –The Rabid Toy.
“It’s taken from the work of an Argentinian surrealist from the early part of the 20th century. The title of one of his novels. He eventually committed suicide.”
Sandy took the opening. “And how is our Jaime?”
Without any tell-tale hesitation Julio answered “Fine, I believe. There are examples of his industry here - under the by-line ‘j.j.’
Again Sandy was stumped until Julio explained j.j. identified ‘joven jaime’.
“Naturally,” responded Sandy and flicked through her copy of the magazine, which appeared well-produced, not glossy but professionally laid out.
“And what is this Joven Jaime writing about?”
“An analysis of everything. But mostly these days denouncing Goni’s poor administration.”
“Is that safe?”
Then Joe Louis surprised her by joining the conversation. “Before Jaime took over the editorship this was just a pseudo-intellectual literary rag – now its relevant. It’s essential reading”
But with the light failing and evening descending that wasn’t the only surprise in store for Sandy. She turned around only to discover that Geordie, excluded from the Spanish conversation which clearly involved Jim, his writings and possibly his exploits, had grown bored, and had scarpered, taking Koff with him.
It was getting dark, so Geordie made tracks for the Perez. To cut the sordid tale short, there he unwisely selected and picked up a pair of likely lads from the reserves of those not yet playing in the football game. And in his ignorance of the city’s mores he confused their seeming innocence with the feral knowingness they actually possessed. To be fair his desire and also his jealousy had been roused by contact with Julio and Jose Luis, so he thought what the hell.
So he took them back to the hotel and tried to secrete them through a back entrance to his isolated quarters up in the rafters. But he was intercepted by a vigilant Mario on night duty who denounced the guests to the manager/owner Beto who, in an ugly scene witnessed by Sandy, promptly threw Geordie out. In solidarity, Koff joined him in his banishment. So they wandered the night streets of downtown La Paz and shared squally rain showers amid the drunks and glue-sniffers (cleferos). Finally they hunched together under a doorway after scoring some low-quality rip-off grass in a smarmy discotheque by the Prado, now called Av. 20 de Octubre.
And Sandy once and for all grasped the amoral leanings that united Jim and all his clan. In the morning, there’s an e-mail from Jim suggesting, given the new circumstances, that now might be an appropriate moment for the pair to sample the delights of the potato harvest up in the Alto.
But it’s still late February. Owing to a lack of persistent rain, still not time for any harvest.