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.