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.