Lost in La Paz

In Bolivia, where the past, present, and future collide, nothing – not even prison – is as it seems
If you look at Bolivia’s capital city of La Paz in a certain light – and light is the sovereign element here, glinting off the tin roofs of the valley and turning the windows of the high-rises into panes of gold – it offers you a near-perfect map of the tenses. At the centre of town is a model of the colonial past: the classic Spanish Plaza Murillo, with a legislative palace on one side, a presidential palace and adjoining cathedral on another, and, on a third, the Gran Hotel París, a fading relic of yesterday’s glories that beams out the word “París” acrossthe city skyline after dark. In the middle of the plaza is a statue. “Glory,” “Union,” “Peace,” and “Force” cry from its four sides, and, around it, cavorting nymphs stand in for the classical arts.

Just a few minutes’ walk from that official home to imported power, still used by Bolivia’s leaders, is what appears to be the present tense: the flower-filled elegance of the Prado, the closest thing to the Champs Elysées that La Paz has to offer. Aymara women are perched in huts in every corner of free space, peddling pyramids of Pringles cans, pirated videos of Ricky Martin, and enough copies of Peter Drucker’s works on management wizardry to occupy the citizenry for a century. But all of them are dwarfed by the signs of official progress all around. Outside an elegant McDonald’s, an armed guard protects the high-tech burger joint, which advertises prices higher than those of the Parisian café next door. Across the street gleam Internet cafés and kids on cell phones. And at the end of the spacious boulevard, a long straggly line of labourers is gathered in a silent queue around the base of a glass skyscraper, at the top of which flies a banner that says, “The Future of Bolivia.”

In reality, the future lies not here but a few minutes’ drive through Sopocachi (the embassy area, full of”Latin jazz” clubs and Tex-Mex hang-outs), down in the Zona Sur valley to the south. The Burger King there is as large as a Mercedes showroom, and the Hypermarket on the corner seems to subvert everything that swarms and sprawls across the Indian market above it. The names of the straight streets of the Zona Sur are the traditional ones – Calacoto and Cotacota, Achumani and Chasquipampa – and yet the whole clean suburb has been made to look like what the affluent, at least, might associate with the future. The karaoke parlour here is called “America,” the shopping mall “San Diego.” As I sat one night in a pizza place, its prices higher than those in Miami, a high-school girl at the next table, soignée as Catherine Zeta-Jones, closed her eyes and sang along, transported, to “Hotel California” on the soundtrack. Hotel California might as well have been down the street.

Yet the saving grace of Bolivia, and what makes it irresistible for anyone eager to escape the simplicities of preconceptions, is that it stands all such theories on their heads. The real heart of town, just blocks away from the Spanish plaza, is the Indian marketplace, the living past, where women in bowler hats offer llama-fetus charms and tribal aphrodisiacs along with copies of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. The costume they wear is itself something of an illusion: the plaits, many-coloured ponchos, and bowler hats that we tourists take to be such a picturesque aspect of the native culture are, in fact, the legacy of an eighteenth-century Spanish king. Where, in cities such as Lima, you may occasionally note a splash of indigenous culture in the midst of what is otherwise a Spanish city, in La Paz it can be startling to see occasional pieces of Spain in what is, for all intents and purposes, a South American province of the fourteenth century. The future of Bolivia, you cannot help but feel, lies in its past.

The traveller, if he comes from a place of comfort, travels in part to be stood on his head – to lose track of tenses, or at least to journey back to essentials, free of the details of home. “Teach me,” as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal, “to go to a country without names and words and terms.” Yet if he is to travel far enough away from the places he knows, the traveller is also obliged to see everything in two ways, to speak in two languages at once. On the one hand, he’s a newcomer who’s walking down the street, unable to read the signs, with the map in his hand held upside down; on the other, he has travelled to look at himself (and his world) through the eyes of the local, for whom the newcomer is a source of strangeness and comedy, descended from another planet.

In Bolivia, this doubleness confounds you at every turn, in the most indigenous country in South America, where people speak languages that have had, until recently, no written form. And so all the guidebook facts, the World Bank figures, that you’ve brought with you have to be thrown out. You’ve read, perhaps, in The New York Times, that Bolivia suffers from the worst rural poverty in the world; ninety-seven percent of the people in the countryside, according to the UN, live below the poverty level. Yet as you walk along the Prado, fathers bouncing their children on their shoulders while Goofy and Mickey share a sleigh with three rival Santas, poverty is not the first word that comes to mind. You’ve seen, no doubt, in the Guinness Book of World Records, that Bolivia enjoys the unhappy distinction of having suffered more changes in government than any other country (188 in 157 years) – the most recent on October 17, 2003, when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had to flee the presidential palace by helicopter, the La Paz airport having been shut down by demonstrators.

Yet as you stroll among the country’s people, policemen walking hand in hand with their wives, girls drifting arm in arm, sidewalk artists setting up Fidel Castro next to Harry Potter, the word you hear most often is tranquilo. And you’ve read, if you’ve done your homework, about a country filtered for us through the accounts of Hunter S. Thompson and Che Guevara and Klaus Barbie, the former Nazi who lived in comfort in La Paz for decades; yet when you arrive in La Paz, its light so resplendent that you feel as though you’re on the edge of heaven, its lovers pressed against one another in the shadows of the colonial quarter after dark, you wonder how much any foreigner can explain about the place.

Bolivia, in short, stands apart from all your ideas, much as the Indian women, with their boxes of Windows 98 software and books by the Dalai Lama sit apart from the future that saunters past them on the street. As I walked through the city my first day in La Paz, the vendors in their shacks never once approached me, or shouted anything out, or tried to catch my attention with their wares. They simply sat where they were, as (it was easy to believe) they had sat for centuries. Once, when the sky turned suddenly black and torrential rains began to pelt down on us all, the women got up wordlessly, draped some tarpaulins over their shacks and then sat down again, silent as before. Otherwise, no movement at all.

I had come to La Paz in the middle of its December summer to get away from a world that was preoccupied with the war between the future and the past. As soon as terrorists attacked Manhattan – the global future, as they feared – and Washington responded by attacking the past (the Afghanistan of the Taliban), a war that had been taking place in every household and heart, between the elders who say “Let’s go back” and the young who say “Let’s go forward,” had gone global, in effect. Everyone was asking how much ritual and devotion we needed in the midst of the post-modern MTV swirl.

La Paz, however, seemed to sit outside all such notions. It sat apart from the world, out in its own dimension. Queen Victoria, in fact, once pronounced that Bolivia did not exist after her ambassador in La Paz refused a drink offered him by one of the country’s tyrants and was forced, in response, to drink a barrelful of coffee, then led backwards through the streets on a mule; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, detective-story writer-turned-spiritualist, set his “lost world” in Bolivia. During the eighties, when all the world watched Washington and Moscow pronounce “mutually assured destruction,” La Paz was said to be the safest place to be in the event of a nuclear crisis.

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