We keep hearing that Cuba is the only place in the hemisphere that's still not "free," democratic, and OK. So late last June, after my fifth trip to and all around the island, I flew from Havana to Caracas and then mostly bussed through eight countries (all of them new to me) to see how the "emerging western style free enterprise democracies" of South America really compare to Cuba. I'm still thinking about three of those countries, but I'm sure the first five I saw: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (like Mexico and all the "free enterprise democracies" in Central America that I know well) definitely don't compare favorably with Cuba.
Since U.S. politicians and media keep telling you the
opposite, you may think I have to be wrong. But I went to see for myself
because I don't trust U.S. politicians and media and, in fact, while life
for everyone in socialist Cuba looks pretty good to me and is certainly
getting better, I found the quality of life in South American capitalist
democracies very good in some ways for a few but very bad for most, with
no certainty things will ever change. You can't really know until you
also learn Spanish, step through the bubble walls alone (a dangerous thing
to do) and, without a tour guide, use your own eyes. But you can learn
one thing right here that the New York and L.A. Times never tell you -
that a different and perhaps clearer view than theirs exists.
I followed the Andes from the hillside heaps of poor
"ranchos" in Venezuela where the walls promise
"death to the G-8;" past identically seething red brick "choza"
ghettos in Colombia, a country bristling with guns aimed
as much at the poor as at the eternal rebels there; and through Ecuador,
where ragged Indians meekly beg along the daytime main streets but the
desperate poor reign savagely over Quito and Guayaquil at night. Or that's
what I kept being told, and I have reason to believe it.
From Lima, where the rich have illegally blocked the
paths of fire engines on almost 200 city streets with privately guarded
gates to seal off and protect their own safe zones from invasion at night
by the poor, I zigzagged through immense coastal and highland deserts
where Peru's losers, 21st century humans, still live in
rock shelters more primitive than Machu Picchu, or in sagging, undersized
adobe huts without water, electricity or floors; or in suburbs of miserable
multi-family boxes where streets and sidewalks are the left-over sand,
and other services are about like the streets.
I came to the top and the depths of the Andes in Bolivia,
an even poorer extension of Equador and Peru, where the government takes
care of itself, and so do the people, if they can; and where decades of
strikes and revolts since Che died vainly there have gotten workers almost
nothing, there's either no minimum wage or nobody cares (I heard it both
ways), child labor is common, and most people who work at all seem to
be street vendors.
In all those countries, I found a privileged minority
living in safe zones protected by police and military from the majority,
afraid to go out at night or enter the neighborhoods of the poor. Though
advised much less urgently in La Paz than in other capitals to be inside
my hotel early, maybe because the chaotic streets are crawling with militarized
cops, I decided in Bolivia that there should be a rap song torturing music
lovers from end to end of the Andes that goes:
Es muy tranquilo aqui;
Porque hay mucha vigilancia;
Pero no sale por la noche!
To the hot investment climate
Of all these
The people are SO friendly-
In the hotels and restaurants
and internet places
around the plaza;
And we have guided tours to
all the famous
Don't cross the river;
Don't go up the hillside;
Don't enter the canyon;
Don't go down to the beach;
Don't walk a block that way
or that way
or that way - alone;
Es muy tranquilo aqui -
En el centro -
Porque hay mucha vigilancia;
Pero no sale por la noche!
Once I'd left Cuba, an island of tranquility
where fear of the night and of the poor are rare concepts, and started
my trek through South America, I didn't stop in many towns where I didn't
hear those lyrics. The sudden sharp contrast between the educated, dignified
Cubans living their normal lives and the mainland's "uneducated and
desperate majority watched closely by all kinds of cops and military with
huge guns" (I'm quoting myself: ch. 6, "Cuban Notebooks"),
made the outcry of Venezuela's upper and middle class, treed in their
houses every night by fear of the poor, that they "suspect"
Hugo Chavez of wanting to go Cuba's way, humorously ironic. Starting
with Venezuela, I found fear of the poor by desperately over-armed minority
establishments to be the most obvious common characteristic of every place
I went on this trip except Cuba, reason enough, surely, for anyone to
give Cuba and socialism another look.
Sadly, though, the middleclass people of the Andes
think their situation is normal. Apparently unperplexed by the sheer numbers
of the suspects, they always say, "There are criminals in any country,
"Pues, si. But that's not the point," I said
at first, before I, too, began to fear the poor. "It's all the soldiers
(or cops when you can tell the difference) standing around with their
akas casually pointed at my belly or my toes." I call all automatic
rifles akas. "How can you live with that?"
"But the armados," they explain patiently,
"are to protect us from delincuentes."
When I went south from Cuba, elections were coming
up everywhere, and I thought I'd post a political update from each of
what Washington calls the "emerging democracies." And I posted
one ("From Maracaibo") on Venezuela before the August plebiscite there. But, though Venezuela is
certainly on the move and may be going someplace if Hugo Chavez stays
in office for 40 years, the most important thing I saw happening in the
first five countries I crossed, including Venezuela, was nothing.
I saw all the modern products in the modern malls and
I saw some modern middle class kitchens. And I read the brochures. The
official story of progress marching on reads the way such stuff reads,
but it leaves out the milling of the ecosystem and exploitation of the
teeming and dangerous masses to enrich (always) the same few winners,
who must then live forever in guarded safe zones surrounded by cops and
Since, in a single visit, I couldn't find and sort
out enough of the questionably important, slightly changing details of
each country's official history as covered by the synchronized media to
write an honest "update," anyway, I decided to write instead
about the much more important set of near identical, unchanging aspects
of every country I passed through (all of them together) that are easy
to objectively verify and that cry out to be compared with Cuba.
Americans, Europeans, and even a lot of Latin Americans
may be irreversibly trained to believe that if people VOTE every 4 to
6 years and are "free" to win or lose in the market, then all's
well. Since they lost their nerve along with the 1990 Nicaraguan elections,
even most so-called progressives have jumped on that warm, safe bandwagon,
and the fact that those supposed keys to paradise never lead 80% of humanity
to a better world (and it's actually odd to think they would) is a cat
left in the bag. But it's harder to stay that hard-headed when you're
closer to the evidence, and poor Latin Americans have inherited generations
of proof that they'll never vote their way out of poverty, and that any
exercise of "freedom" to climb out of the capitalist trap in any other way will
be watched closely through the crosshairs of guns.
The official story that all the heavy armament in Colombia
is to protect "the people" from the guerrillas there, as if
the guerrillas were an alien force, isn't so certain when, in neighboring
countries that don't have guerrillas (now), the very same kind of armament
is deployed in what should be police jurisdictions against "delincuentes"
(crooks), plainly equated with the poor because the armament isn't protecting
poor areas (though there's crime there, too); it's protecting the safe
zones of the well-off and the tourists FROM the poor. And when I asked
why the Colombian army is deployed in the same way (even if it is in the
mountains, too), even Colombians readily admitted that the poor are the
Newspapers there recently reported an international
survey supposedly showing that most Latin Americans think that "la
mano dura" (the iron fist) is the best answer to their continent
wide problem of "delincuencia." But Latin Americans are not
very surprised when I tell them that, with virtually no military presence
and very lightly armed cops, no such tension exists in Cuba. In fact,
there is often someone listening who knows someone who has been to Cuba
and enthusiastically backs me up. Except in Venezuela, where I encountered
as much middle class ignorance as in America, most Latin Americans know
Cuba is different and why. And they actually know their own worst problem
is poverty and that it's the poor they are armed against.
Every Latin American country has armed forces, including
Costa Rica, but there is only one country in the hemisphere with
foreign enemies. Who ARE the enemies, then, of all those other
armies, navies (believe it or not, Bolivia has a navy), air forces, and
militarized police, all over Latin America - all armed and trained by
the U.S.? There are only a few places with active guerrilla insurgencies
still providing an excuse. And, whether all of the poor want their help
or not, the EPR, the Zapatistas, the FARC, the ELN, the Tupac Amaru and
even the Sendero Luminoso were formed originally for the purpose of representing
the poor in a struggle against capitalism. That's just a fact, and, no
matter how ignorant Americans and Europeans are kept by their media, most
Latin Americans, being closer to the evidence, know it.
El Tiempo, in Colombia, recently highlighted the public
pleas of a Colombian woman for the release of hostages by the FARC and
freely quoted her that many Colombians sympathize with the guerrillas'
social concerns though not with their methods. Cuban music and images
and slogans are popular in Colombia; a survey taken right before the August
15 Venezuelan plebiscite showed a solid majority of Colombians backing
Hugo Chavez; and while newspapers there never forget whose side they're
on, a clear difference in the level of ambiguity in their treatment of
possible FARC culpability as opposed to certain right-wing paramilitary
guilt has to reflect a conscious or subconcious, national realization
that the guerrillas' positon on the side of the poor is credible.
The U.S. dictates a fantasy that all the guns it sends
south are for "the war on terror" (not long ago "the war
on drugs"). But THIS I know: airport security is relatively lax in
South America, while border security is near zero (indicating that Washington's
version of what's wrong isn't really taken seriously), and from my first
encounter with wall-to-wall South American paranoia in Venezuela, I wasn't
warned to watch out for local agents of Osama bin Laden or for drug cartels.
In fact, neither Arab terrorists nor (believe it or not) drug runners
were very often mentioned to me. I was warned to stay out of the territory
of the poor, to stay in safe zones where there are plenty of armados to
protect me from the poor - certainly not from suicide bombers or dope
dealers - and, at night, to stay indoors because then, when the armados
themselves retreat inside, even the safe streets are occupied, not by
terrorists, but by terrifyingly desperate individuals out to take from
me what I have that they don't have - money.
There is a very old war in South America,
continent-wide, always smoking or flickering or kindling or flaming. But
it's not a war on drugs or terror or poverty (capitalism NEEDS poverty).
It's an endless defensive action by the haves against the have-nots who
endlessly threaten them, because they (and their foreign bankers) have
most of the continent's wealth, which they don't want to share because,
they say, they worked hard and deserve what they have, and because (they
rarely say this) there are too many have-nots to share with. So the majority
have-nots, who have little to show for their own work, mostly just endure
- but many simmer, and some stew, and some strike - here, there, together,
alone. It's an endless multi-level war and all those armies and navies
and air forces and militarized police, all armed and trained by the U.S.,
are on the side of the haves - to protect them and their foreign bankers
from the have-nots.
VENEZUELA (also see "From
When I asked where to catch a bus from Caracas to Merida,
I was urged to fly, the airport being the territory of the rich, and when
I kept stubbornly asking about busses, I was told, "Well, you'd have
to catch that bus in La Bandera - but don't go to La Bandera! It's dangerous.
Absolutely don't go there!"
Or, if I must, I could take a taxi to the station door
and go directly inside. To go by metro and walk with my pack from the
metro to the terminal would be just asking to be assaulted. A dry run
to the La Bandera metro stop, without my pack, verified what I expected
- La Bandera is deep inside enemy territory - the territory of the poor.
I toured Caracas by the metro as soon as I got there,
because the metro is so comprehensive, and I thought I might use it to
take a shallow survey in various neighborhoods on Hugo Chavez' popularity.
I found the opposite ends of the line buried in low class edificio and
"rancho" jungles, definitely enemy territory, and, walking about
near each station (because I still didn't believe the poor were my
enemy), I got a clear idea from the writing on the walls of who the perceived
enemies of the poor are - the CIA, the WTO, NATO, George Bush, and Venezuelan
"traitors" who side with those enemies. It's fiercely implied
by the number of his quotes spray painted on the walls that Simon Bolivar
agreed. Nobody I talked to disagreed, either, though they were more civil
than the walls and did not look or act like anyone's enemies.
But I was still being lucky then. The war between the
haves and the have-nots certainly includes battle lines, and I was on
the other side of them. The confidence I've built walking wherever I pleased
in Mexico and Nicaragua and Cuba began to erode as I crossed my first
South American country. "Lower class" people in Caracas weren't
always "SO friendly." And some people in Valencia and a lot
of people in Trujillo (where I saw one defiant wall signed by Guevaristas
of America) were hostile. I was frequently warned not to walk around with
my expensive looking out-of-date Pentax on its colorful Guatemalan shoulder
strap in Trujillo.
Merida, in the beautiful Venezuelan Andes, the proud
home of the world's highest teleferico (which painlessly raised my personal
mountain climbing record to over 15,000 feet), seemed completely different
- an alpine tourist paradise of good food, good experiences, and universally
friendly people - until I found the relatively small "rancho"
ghetto there, hidden in a nearly walled off river bottom.
It wasn't easy to see. It's a blank spot on the tourist
map, and there's literally a wall running along most of the top of the
embankment at the edge of the old town. But I spotted where a street became
a plunging staircase and, of course, went right down. I'm fascinated by
the way they build the "ranchos" on top of each other, but down
inside the ghetto's narrow main street, I found I couldn't really see
that. With my camera I'd need to be in a helicopter. Heading back for
the stairs, I was told by a friendly resident that I shouldn't be there
because I was unknown, I obviously had money, and there were no police,
which chilled me a bit.
Questioning her, I learned there were other outsiders
there, though, including Cubans helping run a clinic Hugo Chavez had provided.
It occurred to me then that I had been that kind of outsider on Nicaraguan
shanty slopes in the 80's and 90's, where everyone knew what I was doing,
but I rejected the comparison. Managua may be more dangerous now that
Nicaragua (having thrown away its revolution) is the second poorest country
in Latin America, but Matagalpa, where modern sandinismo was born at least
partly because of the nature of the people there, surely isn't. People
are NOT the same everywhere, and it's probably due as much to Mexican
character as to luck that, as just another resident in San Cristobal in
'96, '97 and '98, I crisscrossed the night streets there alone constantly
with no problems. But, certainly, my ability as a stranger to have regularly
crossed Centro Habana in the dark, feeling no tension and meeting no hostility,
is because there is no uneducated, exploited, and desperate class
in Cuba. Still, I thought she was exaggerating.
But whenever I refer to or quote "THE people"
of Cuba (or Nicaragua where most of my friends live in shanties), the
word "people" is very democratic. In this essay, it usually
means the middle class, because that's who I was hanging with in South
America. So, as I got deeper into the Andes, I confess the pervasive middle
class paranoia and some bad experiences finally got to me. I, too, began
to fear the poor. The attention of the police and military is not, after
all, misdirected. The poor in all those countries ARE the enemy of the
people who have the money to pay the taxes that pay for all the armados
who protect them and their friends, including me. My further experiences
in Merida started underlining that.
When, by surprise, next day, I re-met a Venezuelan
I'd met in Cuba (who first told me the twin Venezuelan mottoes: don't
go outside at night and don't trust anyone) and told him I was looking
for a vantage point to take pictures of the ghetto, he went a bit ballistic
and insisted on going with me to make sure I didn't get too close. He
suggested the bullring parking area, high up the opposite river bank,
which looked perfect from a distance but wasn't when we got there. Then
we tried a slightly higher but projecting school campus, but there was
too much foliage in the way, so I headed for a lower soccer field on a
grassy shelf over the river, which he objected to because denizens from
below use it.
It wasn't good and I started down the road into the
ghetto, hoping a high curve would work. This was too much for my friend
who trailed behind warning me that we were being watched now. I decided
to use a riverbottom street as a shortcut back to a staircase on the old-town
side that looked better and, after at first dragging 20 yards back, he
caught up and urged me to walk fast. As we were crossing the river on
a footbridge, another outsider caught up with us and told me I was foolish
to be there with my camera. He actually suggested I should arrange a police
escort for my project, and then told me there is a heavily traveled street
bridge across the canyon at the other end of the ghetto that I should
I took some shots from the stairs and then from the
stairs I'd found the day before. While I was there, several ghetto residents
coming up warned me not to go down with my camera. Someone would snatch
it in a minute. The street bridge was too remote, so we crossed it and
found a steep, winding walkway on the other side that went down to the
top of an internal ghetto staircase, where my friend, hanging back again,
told me I must not descend even one step below the platform at the top.
But then two gun shots rang out above us, and he flattened
himself against a retaining wall as two young men bounded into sight and
almost knocked me down leaping past me down the stairs, hurdling some
kids sitting on a lower step. A cop was right behind them, his gun drawn,
trying to line up another shot. He stopped beside me to aim, but the kids
were in the way, and people below were yelling, "Separate! Separate!"
at the fugitives, who split and disappeared into opposite side passages.
And the cop stopped right there. That even the cop, gun drawn, would go
no further into the Latin American casbah impressed me.
I was also depressed that, with camera in hand, I hadn't
taken a single chase-scene picture. But I was at least a little less amused
by Venezuelan fear of the other side of the tracks.
Their attitude about the other side of their border
with Colombia, however, which I was told was continuously and underhandedly
being shifted by the Colombians, remained much more clearly apocryphal.
Not preoccupied enough with the danger of their own night streets and
forbidden zones, Venezuelans are also paranoid about Colombia, about the
border area, and about Colombian insurgents, whom even a lot of Chavistas
see faithfully through the eyes of their U.S. guided media.
So my intention to cross that line was viewed with
as much alarm as my interest in Venezuelan slums. They told me every route
into Colombia I asked about was too dangerous, "especially for an
American; you should fly from Caracas to Bogota" and then (I got
the message) fly right out again. My plan to bus from Maracaibo to Cartagena
was too dangerous to be thought of. My protest that plenty of busses go
and they're all full of people was viewed as a strange way of looking
A European woman I met in Sabana Grande in Caracas
who had just bussed alone from Ecuador and who aroused my scepticism by
proclaiming the Colombians "the friendliest people in the world"
(which turned out not to be empty hyperbole, by the way - they might be),
disagreed, but even she advised me to avoid the coastal route I wanted
"Hay muchos robos" on that route, everybody
warned me, and Americans are the most likely ones to be kidnapped, I was
repeatedly told. The guy I'd met in Cuba told me that when my bus broke
down in a Colombian hellhole just beyond the border, as it certainly would,
I'd find the place didn't even have a bathroom. One Maracaibo expert warned
me, "Don't, whatever you do, answer one of the ads in the paper for
people who will take you over by secret routes in their own cars. All
sides will be shooting at you."
Also, just as in Caracas, there was the problem of
the location of the regular bus depot on their own side, which was in
an impossibly dangerous part of Maracaibo. If I went there to catch a
bus, I might not even make it to Colombia. I'd already been there and
had no problems but, truthfully, after a month of constant exposure to
Venezuelan paranoia, I was beginning to worry about such things myself.
A bookstore clerk on his lunch hour drove me from one private bus depot
to another until we found the one next to the periferico gas station known
as La Bomba, in a very safe neighborhood, from where I left on an "ejecutivo"
class bus at 5:30 one morning for Cartagena.
Daylight found the bus in a flat land, passing ugly
Venezuelan towns that looked like Chavez hadn't gotten to them yet and
then ugly Colombian towns that didn't look as if they had bathrooms -
towns like open sores on the earth's skin, raw abscesses opening the sparse
ground cover and spilling dirt, then littering the dirt with burnt cans,
plastic bags, and gray huts and markets. Like eastern Mexico near Texas
(and like nothing in Cuba). Places to remind you that the spread of the
human encampment is a disease, a spreading cancer on what used to be the
clean, healthy face of the world. Places also to remind you that most
humans on this planet live out their lives in conditions you don't see
on TV commercials, and the numbers of Colombians who do was adding up
fast outside the bus window. Luckily the bus didn't break down. Since
it didn't, the flat, barren land between the nightmare villages was boring.
At the border, a sign had said I needed a ticket out
to enter Colombia - just like Cuba. But I didn't mention it and neither
did they. My first experience with Colombian friendliness. Border procedures
were nothing but an exchange of papers. On the other side, it was suddenly
an hour earlier but still boring. Sand, small shrubs, bunch grass, a few
succulents. Sometimes the flat terrain bored itself and rolled a little
to wake up, opened a dry gully, sprang a tree, but it soon went back to
sleep, like most of the bus passengers.
Finally, the grass thickened and greened, more trees
appeared, and the land decided to interest me with hills and streams,
pastures and woods, all shades of green, even embracing the road, sometimes
a sun speckled hallway under lush green arches. I'd completely forgotten
about being kidnapped by guerrillas, but now, I thought, there were places
So we came to a soldier stop and the same kind of silly
ceremony I endured so often in Central America in the 80's, officiously
imposed by little, barely shaving boys, twice as menacing in their oversized
uniforms with there recklessly clutched guns because they were so ridiculously
young. They ran their hands over us and searched only what bags people
chose to have slung over their shoulders when we got off the bus to stand
in a sleepy line on the road. So I was in Colombia, the new and bigger
El Salvador, after all.
The rest of that day was a first lesson in the amazing
difference between the haves and have-nots of Colombia. An estimated 25%
of Colombians are unemployed. Between 55 and 65% are below the official
poverty line because they earn from nothing up TO 5200 pesos a day, which
is worth $2 in the bank but has an actual buying power (because things
cost less there) of around $5. That's up TO but mostly LESS than $5 a
day for up to 65% of the people. The El Tiempo story conscientiously pointed
out that people earning 5201 pesos a day aren't counted as poor.
Yet we stopped for brunch in a roadside village that
could have been on the Big Sur coast, with paper in the clean bathrooms,
polished floors and tables with cloths, and excellent food served with
bright yellow rice. The famously friendly Colombians working in the traveler
accomodation businesses there did a perfect imitation of first world residents.
All the visible houses were neat and painted, and the surrounding woods
and the passing stream were as clean as a park. Compared to everything
else I'd seen that morning, it was as if we'd gone through a teleport
into a tiny bubble world of virtual wealth and safety. I wondered if I
felt like a tour-bus group when they arrive at another Ramada Inn.
I think it was Gore Vidal who first called America
an ignorance bubble. I'm probably not the first one to call tour-bus groups
and the places they stick to (tourist zones, cathedrals, museums, galleries,
and guided tours) bubble worlds. But I invented the term for myself the
first time they let me into El Salvador (where I was non gratis throughout
the 80's). Driving from La Union, on the Gulf of Fonseca, toward the coast,
in July of '93, I came up behind a military operation, a sweep of some
sort, a contingent of stalking armados, several hundred of them filling
the road in combat gear, guns at the ready, intense, like giant ants with
their antennae out and waving. A rich Salvadoran in an expensive car passed
me and, doing as the Romans do, I followed him as he arrogantly threaded
his way through them as if through a herd of cattle - slowly of course
- and, watching the dead faces of people outside their hovels watching
the army, I had the sense that the rico and I in our cars weren't there.
We were in separate moving bubbles, like tourists sailing in elevated
bubbles above the large enclosures at Wild Animal Park. And that night
I'd stayed in another bubble - a tightly enclosed motel in La Libertad,
slickly modern, clean, and safe inside, surrounded by a squalid and dangerous
nightmare outside. I heard scattered gun shots during the night that had
nothing to do with me.
First class busses in South America have heavily curtained
windows, so passengers can sleep the deadtime of the journey away or watch
TV. Anyone who had slept from Maracaibo to the border, and from there
to our rest stop, woke up to the first-world Colombia of the rest stop
Then, back in their "ejecutivo" bus bubble,
bellies comfortably full, they went back to sleep or watched TV inside
their dark curtains as the bus passed more shabby towns messing up the
beautiful woods until we emerged into open coastal terrain and shuffled
along slowly for miles on a strand between the sea and a huge bay. It
was all beach and small trees and bushes accented with palms. Development
on the sea side looked modern and clean and Colombia looked better than
Venezuela; then we went past miles of huts on the backwater side, jammed
together as tight as aphids, some made entirely with grass or thatch,
most unbelievably small, just palapas with four sides with the sand for
floors. They were literally on the tidal flat and I wondered what happens
when the tide comes up. Two consecutive fenced in lots with normal sized
houses on them each took up as much space as 20 or 30 of the chozas.
When I described this scene to a sleek black girl in
a long distance telephone place in Boca Grande next day, she said, "Oh,
that's the Indians. That's just the way Indians live." Had I mistaken
cultural integrity (whatever that is) for poverty? I don't think so. The
tide flat poverty I saw may have been culturally excusable 150 years ago,
but not in 2004.
Most of the contemporary Cartagena sprawl I came through
from the remote bus station in a kamikaze taxi looked worse. Much solider,
but dirty and chaotically crowded, the kind of place no middle class Venezuelan
would want to be day or night. But we finally found the original old Spanish
fortress town still isolated by walls and water from the barbarians outside.
And even more isolated on the point beyond it is Boca Grande, where, as
a tourist, I was automatically taken, a generic tourist bubble with a
mini-Miami beachscape that feels like a stepping stone - a dry, clean
spot where the fastidious (like me at 68) can stand up above the mud and
look around for another such refuge to jump to next.
People at a colorful beach snack shack where I sought
soothing, open shade and a Colombia Club (the country's best beer I'd
been assured), the cook, the waitress, two women trying to sell me a massage,
and a street vendor listening and commenting, all told me that the country
is rich and the poor - most of the people - are being denied their share,
and THAT, they said, is the problem in Colombia. They also all agreed
(when I asked) that they, the poor, have too many kids.
But when I found an excellent Colombian book on Colombian
overpopulation, well reasoned and even well packaged, in the biggest bookstore
in town, the clerk told me it had been there for three years and never
sold a copy. El Tiempo runs regular stories on environmental deterioration,
but, like American media, keeps the concept immaculately free of its unmentionable
cause. The three words, "too many people," which never appear
in American papers, (two in Spanish, "demasiada gente"), never
appear in Colombian papers either, though, in spite of ceremonial stupidity
in high places, Colombian people, like American people, find the words
easy enough to pronounce.
I was buying maps of Colombia and Cartagena and, as
I asked about towns I might bus to that looked just right on the map for
cutting my trip to Bogota in halves or thirds, the three friendly clerks
joined forces to make sure I didn't take the road I was pointing at.
"Go to Medellin. Then to Bogota. Es mas seguro,
porque hay mucha vigilancia." The army had that road covered.
"But doesn't it depend on whether you feel safer
with the guerrillas or the army? All the guns pointed in all directions
in this town, lots of times at me, don't give me a sensation of safety."
The biggest institution in Boca Grande besides tourism is a military base
and it spills out a lot of armados into the sidewalks and streets around
There may be tourists who feel safer in countries where
they are hauled off busses and searched by armed men, where grim men in
combat gear stalk around outside their hotels everywhere they go, but
Since the bookstore clerks, as Colombians, were trying
to convince me it should make me feel secure and I wanted to know if they
REALLY thought that, I explained that, besides being afraid of the soldiers,
whose carelessly pointed guns might go off in my direction, they made
me FEEL like I was in a dangerous place and therefore LESS secure. Also,
I found their gun enforced authority offensive. Like a lot of extra cops.
One clerk told me in English that she agreed completely.
She didn't really like living in an armed camp, either. I don't think
she needed to speak English, because the other clerks then admitted they
agreed, too. Though I never talked to President Uribe, who, as I write
this, is begging the outside world for more military aid against the guerrillas
(which he'll get from George Bush, of course), in my 35 days crossing
the country, I didn't meet many mature Colombians who don't consider militarism
part of their problem.
So I pushed the envelope and told them I hadn't seen
any guerrillas yet, but I'd seen enough poverty to know that THAT problem
wasn't being resolved, and it reminded me of Mexico, where military, immigration,
and anti-drug checkpoints are a pervasive nuisance that accomplish nothing
except the intimidation of people who might otherwise get together and
change things - that is, they protect the corrupt system that produces
the problems all the armed security is supposed to resolve.
The girl who spoke English knew a lot about Mexico
and, maybe because she felt more comfortable talking about another country,
told me how bad things are for most of the people of Mexico.
My new map of Old Cartagena showed the walled old town
split by the throughway, and the clerks pointed to places I should go
on only one side. Even the one who spoke English pronounced the other
side undesirable - "no es tranquilo; no es seguro por la noche."
I walked a little there the next morning, though. Not
really very far, and nobody I met followed up on my "Bue-eno-o"
with an offer to talk, as people in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba often
do. Maybe the constant warnings about such areas was beginning to make
me visibly nervous. It was too hot for a long walk, anyway, constant walking
in Cuba and Venezuela had started some growing hip pains, and I was longing
for a cold salpicon (a fresh cut fruit cocktail) I knew I'd find on the
side that was more "turistico." But the wrong side of the tracks
in old Cartagena didn't really look much worse by day than the still unrestored
part of old Mazatlan. Its worst features are the presence of extra sidewalk
sleepers and more litter and that it's crumbling and unpainted, but it
seems like a small enclave to have been just let go. Of course, the poor
live there, and just knowing that is supposed to make the air buzz.
"Turistico" and "Tranquilo" are
the polite descriptions of safe bubble worlds where tourists probably
won't be attacked by desperate paupers, and the girls at the bookstore
had sanctified two stops on my way to Medellin as "bien turisticas,"
which, to me, meant there were hotels in both towns that I could accept.
When I was younger, I stayed in some rustic places, though seldom in the
bottom holes really determined backpackers revel in, but at 68, since
I gave up my apartment in Morro Bay and hotels have become my only home,
When I got to the beach town of Tolu, though, in a
countryside not at all jungly, green, but like California in the spring,
I found myself crowded out by the new trend I'd read about in El Tiempo.
To feel safer touring their own country, supposedly, Colombians with money
are joining large, one destination bus caravans. Too many busses together
for the guerrillas (or paramilitaries pretending to be guerrillas) to
tackle - or a brilliant scam for the travel agents - either way, too many
busloads to leave many rooms at the beach for me.
So I saved money at the cheapest hotel on the beach,
the kind of place where the whole bathroom is inside the shower stall.
It was on the beach, though, and, with the windows open, I got a delicious
breeze along with the endless bass boom from the disco next door. Also,
families and bigger groups pedaling bicycle carts (built for two or three
or more) up and down the malecon, with bells and whistles and songs and
yells, raised their own volume to drown out the disco every time they
passed. Tolu is a kind of make-your-own Disneyland for families.
It's also apparently all middle class. Not between
the 37th and 63rd percentiles - between the 81st and 99th. I walked all
over and saw no mansions and no shanties, and this was typical of all
the small towns I would visit in Colombia. Apparently, most of the rich
as well as most of the poor are clustered in Colombian cities. I found
small towns like Tolu and Manizales and Neiva and Mocoa to be convincing
first-world, middle-class bubbles, except Tolu had no laundromat.
I was told in an appliance store that everyone in town
has a washer and dryer, or at least a washer and a clothesline, and also
everyone has their "muchacha," whom they pay only 800 pesos,
so why would they need a laundromat? Tourists' laundry is done by hotels.
My hotel charged me 7000 pesos, only $2.70 to me ($7 in Colombian buying
power), but a terrific two-way rip-off if they paid their "muchacha"
"Where do they find all their muchachas?"
I asked the appliance sellers. "They live here," I was told.
NOT, I thought, anywhere I hiked in that neat little town of clean
streets and pretty houses. But on the bus leaving town, I immediately
saw one satellite community of mud streets and sagging shanties. I guessed
there were more in other directions. Poor people working inside Latin
American bubbles logically have to walk or bus a distance to work.
From the bus, I also saw some big beach-side estates
and some sprawling hotels for wealthier tourists, but within a few miles
I began to see the shanties in the deep shade of the banana groves. The
shade was deep and the leaves were thick, and I couldn't see far, but
I saw houses like the ones I visited in Zapata, Mexico, in '98, way out
in the last remnants of rainforest around Lago Miramar in Chiapas, where
the floors had to be raised mesas of tamped dirt braced all around, because
it was all mud outside the door.
I couldn't see much through my rolling window, but
I could see the land beside the raised roadway was mostly wet, and in
50 miles before we came out into the open range that took me on to Caucasia,
I easily saw more dirt-floored homes than I've seen in all of Cuba searching
hard. I use the word "homes" for comparison purposes because
there are very few actual shanties in Cuba, but there are plenty in Colombia,
and the next day, on the road from Caucasia to Medellin, I saw hovels
to match the worst I've seen in Nicaragua or Honduras.
They say (just as if they were talking about Palm Springs)
everyone comes to Caucasia to drink aguardiente and party, and the next
day's road went up the same wide river, the Rio Cauca, that made my one
afternoon in Caucasia's waterfront bars and restaurants feel so peaceful.
Climbing a canyon where the river narrowed, though, Colombia's worst was
lined up single file between the road and the precipice.
The canyon was lush. I saw a lot of giant caucho trees
trailing vines, sometimes in groups. Mixed with palms, they made a convincing
jungle. There were occasional foot bridges to the more virgin-jungled
opposite side of the river and there were sometimes cattle visible over
there and scattered abodes I couldn't classify. On my side, it wasn't
all bad. Spaced out among all the shacks and huts were perfectly good,
normal sized houses like you'd see beside any California fishing stream.
Roadside restaurants were often first world bubbles.
But the every-50-mile comparison to Cuba I just cited
for the road out of Tolu was reduced drastically on the road south from
Caucasia. A lot of houses had real walls and floors, but I saw more with
dirt floors every two or three miles than I've seen in all of Cuba. And
there were plenty of uninhabitable (yet inhabited) hutches.
There were a lot of plastic tent-shacks. I saw three-sided
plastic palapa homes, open to the river, their backs to the road. Of the
better hovels made of solider stuff, roofs were of tarpaper scraps, thatch,
odd shingles, or single tin squares often not nailed but held down by
old tires; walls were of flattened cans, scrap wood, bark, board, tin,
brick, cement blocks, or adobe. Sizes varied, but most shacks were under
200 square feet. A common plan was a single roof, bridging two 5X8, tent
sized cubicles, leaving a roofed passage between them, with the cubicle
doors opening onto the dirt hall, so it was hard to tell if the wings
had floors. This style was duplicated in some better and bigger houses,
with the wider passage made of painted concrete or brick. I saw one very
solid, neatly painted concrete hut no more than 100 square feet including
a triangle cut out of one corner under the roof corner for a stair-step
sized porch. The best places were on stilts over the river, because they
had wooden floors and no mud at least on the river side - just a sheer
Circumstances wouldn't cooperate with me and my camera.
Even though mudslides stopped us three long times that day, we passed
the most horrible raveled boxes while the bus was moving its fastest and
jolting its wildest and my camera wasn't poised. But my mind took one
picture I'll never lose of a flapping black plastic, stick-framed hutch
on the windy, barren shoulder between the road and a sheer drop down a
muddy slope to the river, its door opening jammed by children, a gangly,
bony faced girl staring open mouthed up at me in my bus window passing
her by. Many huts were obviously occupied by families with kids and old
The Cauca was sometimes wide and sometimes narrow and
deep, but always full and rushing. There were constantly dozens of waterfalls
in sight on the far side of the canyon, and we passed frequent falling
torrents on our side, including one spectacular cataract with a slick,
view restaurant perched on a boulder in front of it. So it seemed strange
to read next day in El Tiempo that the country's water table is falling
due to too much use (of course it didn't say by too many people) and Colombia
(like the whole world) is facing a water crisis.
We went through several Spanish looking cathedral towns
on that road, stopping for lunch in a place as neat and clean as Tolu.
We stopped at several military checkpoints and the driver pretended not
to see others, looking to his left and speeding past while they were checking
someone else, just as I often do in Mexico and Central America. We also
passed some large, well fenced and guarded family campgrounds, as busy
as if they were in Switzerland instead of warring Colombia. I saw no guerrillas
and I didn't sense that anyone really expected to. Due to all the mudslides,
we got to Medellin late.
Medellin is a mostly red-brick city in a valley, and,
winding down from the heights, it looks neat at first, because you can't
tell from a distance that the red-brick slopes on the other side are all
rubble - I mean rubble people live in - the same "ranchos" piled
on top of each other as in the grandstands around Caracas, but renamed
The bus station is space-age, and the elevated metro
is sleek, but when I climbed off the metro downtown, the dirty red bricks
walling in the tight and tightly packed streets below stunk of urine.
Medellin's centro, where I'd been told to stay because "hay mucha
vigilancia," making it supposedly "tranquilo," is a big
skidrow; the sidewalks, where they aren't wildly jammed with "ambulantes"
(street vendors), are littered with beggars and sleeping drunks; and the
hotel I'd been sent to by the tourist desk at the bus depot was a flophouse.
I checked in to get my backpack in out of the gathering darkness but moved
around the corner next morning to another hotel where I gladly paid too
much for a comfortable room 12 stories above the pit. I guess I was starting
to react to the war, retreating from the front lines. My front door was
still in the mire, though, facing, across an alley sized street, a by-the-hour
hotel named "Desire;" and Hotel "Fantasy" was right
around the corner.
But Medellin was strangely mixed, the flow of desperation
filled with small bubbles. Centro on the Friday night I got there was
a depressing urban jungle scene, with narrow, dark, brick walled streets,
vicious traffic, and legions of lost souls.
Yet there were also normal, prosperous looking people,
apparently unalarmed, strolling out to dinner as if they were in La Jolla.
Their top choices were second story balcony restaurants with old music
and downward views that made the chaotic swirl beneath them orientally
picturesque. Workers and shoppers in stores along the malls acted as if
everything was normal. A parallel universe of normal people lived submerged
in the roil of subhumanity like reverse moles, and they were all cheerful
When I told the typically friendly waiter on a balcony
that had attracted me with its 40's music that I'd been sent to the center
by a number of people who had assured me it was the safest part of town,
he agreed with them. He didn't live there. He lived in Floresta, one of
the suburban bubbles on the western metro spur, but downtown "es
todo tranquilo," he assured me. "Hay mucha vigilancia."
And the cops and soldiers were very much in evidence. Of course, he added,
I should be in my hotel by eleven.
I was, and the whole area had been cleaned up by the
time I emerged next morning. Though the streets and buildings were still
brick-ugly, narrow, and dark, and my skidrow hotel had depressed the hell
out of me, the malls were empty of all the night denizens except the fallen
sleepers and the always lingering odor of old piss. I had seen children
sleeping on the stained sidewalks with their mothers begging beside them
the night before. In the light of a new day, I discovered sunny, green,
cheerful Parque Bolivar, and 50 yards away on the closest of the malls
made by closing some streets, the Versailles pasteleria coffee shop. I'd
just missed the sell-out of 15¢ croissants a block away. In the Versailles
I had 27¢ day-old croissants reheated expertly that may have been
the best I've had since France, with perfect Colombian coffee. I'm using
the plural because I did it twice.
On the same day, after changing hotels, I went to the
north end of the metro line, getting off the train at each station. I
found that the metro windows (unfortunately moving too fast) and several
metro stations look across a narrow river and almost down on the red-brick
rubble of the "choza" slopes. I had nearly the helicopter view
I'd been unable to find of the Venezuelan "ranchos." But without
a telephoto lens I'd need a perfect enough focus to crop a small window
out of whatever I got. And a surprising row of used camera stores I would
find that afternoon had no lenses for my old Pentax.
At the last metro stop I found a new tract or cluster
of tracts of houses and apartments being built - the shopping center was
already there - aimed at people who don't have enough money to buy a home,
but can be conned into a lifetime debt for a poor excuse for a home, a
time honored way the rich rob the poor everywhere. Propaganda posted on
models was obviously aimed at people living in stacked chozas or in edificio
To maximize profits on each tiny rectangle of ground
space, the short and narrow units were all stacked three stories high,
wasting sparse space on jammed-in stairs, and cramming the rest with more
tiny rooms than made sense. Early buyers were already opening tiny shops
in their ground floors, and it was clearly a future red-brick slum. Maybe
it was subsidized.
A series of columns and letters in El Tiempo that week
ridiculed the squandering of government grants to subsidize 35 square
meter homes for the poor (add a zero to get approximate square feet) as
worse than nothing (worse for sure than the 80 to 100 square meter homes
Hugo Chavez was building in Maracaibo when I was there), while developers
squeezing profits from the plan defensively shrieked that the tenants
could, after all, build second floors later - a vision approximating what
Getting off the metro a stop early back downtown, on
a grim street so filled with ambulantes that I had to walk on the center
strip, I saw the poor robbing the poor. A young man grabbed something
from a sidewalk tarp. The vendor knocked him down, but he came up running,
and the vendor, who couldn't trust fellow vendors to watch his "store,"
was unable to chase him. He yelled but nobody cared. The thief was one
of them, too, fighting his own war on his own poverty with as much judgement
as a suicide bus bomber.
The next day, another idiot with equally bad aim, bombed
a fiesta parade a few blocks from Parque Bolivar, the small bomb (called
a "petard" by the papers) either dropped from an overpass or
planted in a float in the parade. Several people, including children,
were injured by flying glass.
Before I got to Medellin, I guessed the violence I'd
read of there was like drive-by shootings in one part of San Diego - just
newspaper stories to people on the other side of town. But it's closer
than that. Downtown Medellin, like most of downtown South America, is
in a war zone. There is a lot of vigilancia because the fallen people
of the vast choza slopes, who greatly outnumber their enemies, are rustling
there, striking out constantly, individually, and blindly now, but ready
to swirl up in their thousands, should a whirlwind come, and bury the
young, barely shaving armados.
It must have been the middle of the next sunny day,
on a downtown sidewalk so crowded the police could have been 50 feet away
and noticed nothing, that I was attacked by 3 or 4 desperate men. They
wanted my money, of course, and I was lucky they didn't have knives. I
thought of that later. At the time I didn't think at all in words.
I was pushed roughly from behind and moved obligingly
left to get out of the way, but the short Indian man who appeared on my
right turned and pushed me again. Looking to my left automatically, not
to trip over anyone, I found the first man's twin, who roughly pushed
me back to the right. A triplet U-turned in front of me and pushed me
backward into their pocket. There may have been another one behind me;
I didn't look or really think.
I had only feelings and impulses. Feeling my wallet
and passport safe in my front Levi's pockets, only the camera bag over
my left shoulder vulnerable, I instinctively, wordlessly, knew I needed
to take time and make noise, and, grabbing the camera bag with my right
hand to pull the strap tight against my neck, I ducked, slammed my right
shoulder and elbow into the one in front of me, yelling something brilliant
in English, like, "Get away from me, you fucking creeps," pushed
the bony chest on my left hard enough with my left hand that he may have
fallen, and went hard through the opening.
I ran a 10-yard broken-field Z into another vacuole
in the crowd and dropped to a fast walk, instinctively avoiding further
attention. I saw the pyramid shaped metro steps and went up them at an
Someone yelled, "Senor!" behind me and I
thought in words again that it might be a cop or a citizen who had collared
a mugger or even a mugger trying to coax me back. But with my heart speeding,
my throat drying, my cheeks and brain checkered with heat, I went over
the slanted edge and down the other side where I recognized the street
and fast forwarded - not toward safety, just away. I was still in the
crowd and saw men who looked like the muggers all around me.
I dodged menacing cars and busses a lane at a time
across a wide street, edged fast past the beggar whose bones show through
the holes in his outstretched legs, braved the street again to get around
an ambulante's pushcart and jerked side to side like a sped-up film through
the crowd, up my own dank narrow street, into my hotel lobby, and onto
the elevator where I had to stop and try to calm down. I had been attacked
by the poor. And I thought of that, that I wasn't safe because I'm special,
that I was a target in the war. But also, like any Republican I suppose,
I was grinding my teeth, angrily reliving the incident, this time striking
out more effectively, beating the creeps up. For some reason, I felt humiliated.
In my room, looking down 12 floors at the chaotic street,
while my heart and breath returned to normal, I remembered I hadn't needed
or even thought of police help, that the defenses I'd been so sure of
in theory had finally been tested in reality and they'd worked. Help from
anybody else is unlikely even in a crowd, and even in Colombia the cops
won't be there when they're needed, but a mugger can't count on that and
he has no time. With my wallet and passport in my front pockets, freeing
my hands and arms, I'd taken time and made noise and won the battle -
But I also feared I had lost some of my confidence
along with my composure. I had to keep talking to the poor, I thought.
The muggers were random bombers, I told myself, nothing like all the people
I know who live in shanties. But the incident was evidence that all the
paranoia I kept meeting was justified - that the western style free enterprise
democracies I was foolishly traveling around in alone aren't safe. They
aren't all that tranquilo even in the daytime with mucha vigilancia all
Exploring the south side of town that day, I'd been
warned twice. First a convenience store clerk selling me a bottle of water
in El Poblado and then a youth watching his fender being straightened
in a large area of car repair shops just south of the center had worried
about my traveling alone and warned me about delincuentes, and they'd
both been right. Like everybody else who'd told me the same thing so constantly
in Venezuela and Colombia that it had almost seemed laughable. And now
that I had the evidence, I thought, what I should do next was catch a
plane home. I felt old and exposed and what I did the rest of that day
The next day, shooting pictures of the choza slopes
from two metro stations, I knew they weren't good enough, so, cursing
my nervousness and uncertainty, a new feeling that I couldn't seem to
squelch, I crossed a bridge to the other side of the river and then went
into the chozas far enough on a ruined but ideally elevated street to
take the picture I wanted. I talked to a young man there, then, who asked
where I was from. Because he had never been further than Bogota, he was
interested in my travels, especially in Cuba, and he told me one of the
choza barrios near the center is named after Fidel Castro.
Along the western metro spur, west of the bullring, I
also found normal looking bedroom communities with names like The
Laurels, where children presumably enjoy happy, wholesome childhoods.
Inside their bubbles, big or small, middle class Colombians live first
world lives as convincingly as if the poor majority weren't there. They
are friendly, their food is excellent, and their coffee is perfect.
I went next from Medellin to the picturesque village of Manizales, perched
on a knife edge ridge so even the main street running along the ridge
is almost level, and most of the town can be assessed by looking down
both steep side streets from each intersection. Except for the oddity of
being on that ridge, between intersections, it's a lot like the main streets
of several small northern California towns I know. Manizales was one of
the places nobody told me not to go out at night, though I was told there
were other parts of town I shouldn't descend to. But even at mid-day in
a top-of-the-ridge crowd of people who looked and acted like brown Nebraskans,
I kept looking over my shoulder and jumping when anyone unexpected passed
Alert readers should keep one eye on the narrator after this to see if
my enthusiasm for mingling waned. But not yet. Manizales was generally
a place for good and irrelevant experiences that took my mind off my mission
for a few days.
From Manizales I bussed over the central branch of the Andes, down to
the deep Rio Magdalena trench that splits Colombia, and most of the way
up the eastern cordillera to the 8500 foot valley of Bogota. I didn't
see much military along that road, but once again the guerrillas missed
their chance to kidnap me.
Bogota is spread out like an apron in front of a very high escarpment
with a white church way up on top that you can get to by teleferico or
by funicular car. Behind the church and an expensive restaurant, there
is a long, double file shanty bazaar where they sell arts and crafts and
junk and delicious, cheap "picadas," heaping plates of steaming
vegetables and meats of all kinds.
In front of the church are coin operated telescopes to look down at the
city, at the distant choza slopes that ring the big valley, at the huge
clusters of edificios (excess-people warehouses) among the valley's numerous
green houses and factories, and at what may be the longest relatively
safe bubble in South America, less than 6 or 8 blocks wide but stretching
along the base of the cliff for five or six miles, from one end of the
huge, beautifully preserved old town, through a modern zone of skyscrapers,
and out a long boulevard past several universities, two sprawling parks
and a golf course.
Half the boulevard and its extension all the way through old town is closed
to cars on holidays and weekends so bicyclers can ride back and forth
as if they were in one of the world's capitals.
Only a few blocks out from the steep slope, things start looking worn
and dirty, and there is a choza casbah with its own crumbling, chaotic
main street on the slope above the old town, where I wandered around with
my camera one day, trying to reverse the fear of the poor that was starting
to infect me, looking for an open space with a view of where I was. I
shot the slope above from a sandlot outfield, but I had no real conversations.
On the sorriest looking street in Havana, if I just stop to consult my
map, someone will offer directions and may wind up inviting me in for
a cafecito. In the Bogota ghetto, maybe I was spotted as an outsider on
the wrong side of the lines. Maybe I didn't try very hard.
A few blocks below, inside the long, narrow, clean, slick, modern or beautifully
restored bubble of chic and friendly downtown Bogota, anyone you ask directions,
every clerk in every store, all bus and taxi drivers, the stuffiest looking
museum keepers and uniformed hotel staff, exhausted laundry workers and
janitors, even cops, and all waiters and waitresses and cooks are your
immediate friends, ready to join you in your quest or project or concern
to make sure things go your way.
There's almost every kind of store and service. Internet places are state-of-the-arts
and the friendly nerds know their stuff. When I showed my pocket PC memory
card and card reader to the young boss in the cyber cafe closest to my
hotel and asked if I could use them there, he took them and sent Chapter
Seven of "Cuban Notebooks" back to San Diego for me before I
could say, "Just show me..." Bogota was the first and last place
on my trip where that could be done.
Used book stores abound and ambulantes sell used books and maps. Some
ATM's will tell you your bank balance back home. After I bought a well
aged bottle of Valle Maipo to keep in my room, I did have to search awhile
for a cheap corkscrew and remove several attachments to make it practical
for my pack. And I couldn't find an extra memory card for my pocket computer.
There's pizza by the slice that even a San Diegan can accept, the wine
is almost always Argentine or Chilean and the coffee is always perfect.
A place called Moros y Cristianos doesn't have moros y cristianos, but
it has arroz moro and other real Cuban food. A French bakery makes perfect
croissants every morning. There's a piano bar where a philosophical pianist
played "As Time Goes By" for me on a shiny white metal keyboard
I hadn't noticed, suspended in air like a heavenly harp beside the real
piano I'd expected him to play. A Colombian place where I had pollo cooked
in cerveza has a bigger collection of nueva cancion CD's than I do. The
cafe attached to the Hotel Ambala where I stayed in Old Town makes the
best arepas in two countries, that look and feel like inch-thick potato
patties but are made of a flour masa and cheese served so hot that students
from the law school in the next block who flock there to eat them have
to carefully pick off pieces with their fingers to nibble while they discuss
cold Colombian codes. There seems to be a university in every block.
But there are also lots of armados. There are military schools, military
museums, uniform and medal stores, bases and barracks, reviews and ceremonies
and exercises and patrols, and altogether too many different kinds of
armed uniforms standing around everywhere. Coming out the front door of
my hotel, I was bound to see a group of soldiers at the next corner, and
then three or four more at the following corner, then six or so crossing
a street, then several in a doorway, and four more coming up behind me.
It was like finding ants in the kitchen.
That was my view, and when I brought it up, the friendly Colombians agreed,
but they also seemed to dote on their boys in uniform the way Americans
did during WWII. Middle class Colombians were so nice to me that I was
ashamed to reflect that I'd found Germans to be the friendliest people
in Europe and that they probably had been just as friendly in the 40's,
too. The friendly Colombians also agreed with my views on poverty, but
their usual unsolicited stances toward the poor were indifference or fear,
positions they may have shared with the poor themselves.
I saw the poor robbing the poor again in Bogota when, just as in Medellin,
a fast ragamuffin snatched a handful of goods from a sidewalk tarp and
ran across traffic and away through the crowd as the victim yelled uselessly
at a moment when there were miraculously no armados around. The same thing
could happen anywhere, but not so often in front of my eyes and not in
the same context.
I also saw a truck full of cops with plastic shields moving along a sidewalk
full of ambulantes, snatching up tarps full of goods, while a woman cop
wrote in a notebook what her officer dictated and the targeted ambulantes
tried to dart in past the shields to snatch back something - a few CD
rip-offs, a few bracelets, books, gloves - something, before they ran.
People watching told me it was contraband. I don't know how they knew
or how the cops knew.
I watched a sentry at the other end of the Candelaria (old town) alertly
watching everyone who passed him but doing nothing until a withered and
soiled old man came along with a sack over his shoulder (a Colombian shopping
cart). He barred the old man's passage with his rifle and made him show
everything in the bag.
And once I stepped out of a travel agency on Main Street into the path
of a combat geared army patrol (not the police - the army), sweeping a
wide city sidewalk, pushing men who looked less than prosperous to the
wall to search them. I strained myself sideways through them and got out
of there. I didn't believe any of the citizens they were bullying looked
any more suspicious than I did.
I'd been in the agency with my map of Colombia trying to get some information
on my intended route to Ecuador. Having seen Medellin, I meant to skip
Cali and continue along the eastern cordillera, down its back side, and
through some of the eastern jungle before jumping back over the Andes
to Pasto right above the border, and some of the distances marked on my
map didn't make sense. But half the agency staff had come to their feet
in alarm, telling me in unison that I couldn't go that way.
"Hey," I said, alarmed myself by their amazing reaction, "I'm
just trying to get some facts." The distance from Florencia to Pasto
was shown as being further than from Neiva to Pasto and it made no sense.
If it was true, I might want to go through Mocoa instead of through Florencia.
Nobody cared about distance. They were determined to keep me from going
to either Florencia or Mocoa or anywhere past Neiva. Neiva was OK, they
said. I could go to Neiva. Or even as far as Pitalito, they relented,
but then I absolutely must switch to a bus west through a very important
park everyone assured me I'd like to see to Popoyan, a town a lot like
Manizales they claimed, which I would like much better than Florencia
or Mocoa, and right on the Pan-American highway, which is the best way
A rugged looking guy in a client's chair was laughing. He told me he knew
the area and the distance figure was probably a typo, but the road south
of Florencia was in terrible shape. "It's not dangerous, except to
your butt. Either way is something to see but it's easier by Mocoa."
He told me the road to Mocoa was paved when he'd last seen it before the
heavy rains. He told me the dirt road over the Andes after Mocoa would
be worth the pain.
Later, the waiter in an Italian restaurant on 19th Avenue told me he had
family in Florencia and had recently spent a week exploring the jungle
there. He'd never seen a guerrilla and recommended either route. "Do
what you want to do," he said, and I agreed, hearing no movie danger
music or rattling in the background. But El Tiempo's front page that day
was dominated by a frightening photo of an albino rattlesnake, just discovered
in (or near) my path.
I stopped an extra night in Neiva because I made so many friends there
so quickly, like the owner of a riverside restaurant, closed for the day,
who loaned me three chairs to set up my own bar on the grassy bank of
the upper Magdalena, where he and another philosopher helped me drink
a 6-pac of Colombia Club. They told me about birdlife on an island the
river surrounded in front of us and that a lot of species in that region
are endangered - like me if I went any further south. Almost everyone
I met in Neiva told me to change busses in Pitalito and go west to Popoyan.
A woman who worked for a small airline almost tearfully begged me to fly
to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border. She offered me a special fare for
a plane that would land in Florencia on tne way so I could see FARC territory
safely from the air and briefly from the plane window on the ground.
The next day, everyone got off the bus in Pitalito except me and the driver.
That seemed so ridiculously ominous that I wondered if I'd misunderstood
and it was the end of the line. But the driver assured me he was going
on to Mocoa and went around shouting, "Mocoa-Mocoa-Mocoa!" to
drum up business. A pair of Indian men, a farmer with a dog and some chickens,
and a man with several large mirrors protected by wooden braces got on.
On the road, as usual in Latin America, we picked up passengers for short
distances. None went far, and long before we got to Mocoa, it was just
me, the driver, and the mirror man.
But the road stayed on a high plain in open pasture and farm land most
of the way, an unlikely setting for an ambush. When it finally dropped
into the Amazon basin, and there were patches of palms and cauchos, trailing
vines, hosting colorful parasites, lushly attended by tree ferns and (to
me) nameless plants that looked like giant feathers, we were almost there.
Three hard looking young men and a woman got on a few miles from town,
but they were just three hard looking young men and a woman. The land
around the town, which straddles a tributary of the Amazon tributary that
divides Colombia from Ecuador, was largely stripped for agriculture and
livestock, and the town itself was in the open, only brushed by jungle
here and there.
Mocoa was in fact just a country town, where the presumably country Spanish
nearly baffled me. But I clearly understood the patrona of a fruiteria where
I had a salpicon as soon as I was settled in my hotel, who was distinctly
and sincerely aghast that I had not left Bogota sooner. She would never
go to such a dangerous place, she said. She considered Mocoa the safest
place in Colombia, and, if I'd been going north, I think she'd have urged
me to detour through the jungle to avoid Bogota.
The town's designated best restaurant, where I had dinner, was at the
edge of town at the bottom of a slope just under a jungle fringe which
also covered a poor hillside barrio I climbed to after dinner because
the waiter told me there were some refugees there who had run away from
fighting going on further east. The shanties up there spoke eloquently
of their tenants' misery, but the dialect of the refugees, if it was refugees
I talked to, was nearly impossible. I was only half sure that an old man
who kept touching me as he talked and vacillated between theatrical bitterness
and resignation was blaming his family for forcing him to leave someplace
he didn't think they needed to leave, and that a cheerful woman I decided
was part of his family was assuring me he was not to be taken seriously.
Neither used more than one consonant per sentence. There were some sick
kids there, and that may have been where I picked up the bottomless cough
that would cripple me for the next few weeks.
I stayed up late in Mocoa for two nights hoping vainly to meet somebody
with connections to or inside knowledge of the FARC. I really wasn't worried
about the guerrillas. Their indisputable atrocities are famous because
they're not common. Once while I was in the country, they were suspected
of killing a peasant reportedly warned not to join the army. But they're
not Maoists and they don't have a reputation for cruelty or torture. Every
actual quote from them indicates they're as serious as I am about communism,
I've met Colombians on their side in Nicaragua who impressed me, and I'd
like to have talked to them. I wouldn't like being their guest for a year,
obviously. But I'd never expected to be kidnapped off a bus. There are
too many busses. Much as it smacks of a movie, my best chance to meet
them was by talking to people in Mocoa in places where people talk.
I had more fear of the violent rightwing patriots, the paramilitaries,
who reportedly have the sympathy of many of the middle and upper class,
and who could be anybody I met. I thought of that when I struck sparks
from two business or maybe rancher types drinking Aguila (the Budweiser
of Colombia) in the restaurant under my hotel, who grilled me about my
sentiments, apparently because I was foreign and there. But, when I asked
about local sympathy for FARC, instead of pulling their guns and taking
me for a walk, they privately exchanged a bit of incoherent sarcasm and
pointedly turned away. My question was a rude insult to decent people
of their class.
There's an army base in the center of Mocoa with soldiers always on guard,
ready for something, and both the jungle and the river offer avenues of
hostile approach. But nothing happened while I was in town and I never
knowingly saw a guerrilla. They were certainly there. According to the
papers, they were very active near there the following week when I was
in Ecuador. But just bussing for a month across Colombia didn't net me
a guerrilla experience.
My biggest adventure was riding a collectivo, a 4WD pickup, over the jungle
covered Andes on the unpaved road from Mocoa to Pasto - over half a day
of rumbling, bouncing, sliding, and delicately tip-tiring over or under
hundreds of streams - falling, tumbling, tunneling through caverns of
leaves, and past endless combinations of tropical foliage. Around the
next bend from any of the military checkpoints on that blind, twisting
route, the road could easily have been cut or blocked but wasn't that
In Pasto's main square next day, when I was just starting to cough, I
talked to a gentle young couple selling a radical communist newspaper
who told me nobody bothered them because they were clearly not connected
to any armed insurgents. They were exercising their free press rights,
they said. They assured me nothing would happen to them. But I also bought
dinner for and talked to a pair of internal exiles who had separately
arrived there with something in their pockets but were rapidly evolving
into street people ("Hereafter, you may look for me on some park
bench," she said in English) and who urgently advised me I was underestimating
the dangers of Colombia. She extended her arm and made a small fist to
show her support for Uribe, declaring, "That - for the FARC!"
because she believed it is the guerrillas who terrorize Colombia and that
her family's flight from the town she'd grown up in had ruined her life.
But the guy, who had recently abandoned his home near the Venezuelan border
and was hoping to reach Chile, said even people hurt by the FARC were
really the victims of a system that keeps people poor all their lives.
He was sure the police I saw snatching "contraband" in Bogota
were robbing the poor of their (to them) substantial investments. But
though he hated Uribe and all armados, he considered the FARC, AUC (the
paramilitaries), and the urban poor as all more dangerous than he thought
I realized. He elaborated at length on the dangers even to tourists who
weren't careful, and she asked if I understood, because his accent was
thick, and then translated in English, "You could easily wind up
dead in Colombia." She left out his point that, if I did, I could
blame the system.
I'm sure it sounds odd to anyone who has read anything about Colombia,
but almost nobody I talked to there about the obvious social strife and
suffering ever brought up the subject of drugs. I don't doubt the impact
of the drug trade (though I doubt that anyone in the world worries about
drugs as much as American conservatives do), but, in Colombia, drug dealing
is clearly a spin off of the bottom line problem of poverty. The guerrillas
scare a lot of people, and the rightwing paramilitary nuts scare others,
including me. And I'm sure the drug cartels rightly scare people, too.
But I never knowingly saw any of those factions. I saw cops and military
who scared me more, and I saw lots of poor people. The civil war was in
the papers, but, based on what people said to me, I think it's the poor
that scare almost everyone most, and after two months in two countries
of constant warnings about the poor, the poor were starting to scare me,
The more famously dangerous factions are there. I was told by cynics in
Colombia and later by Colombian exiles in Bolivia and Chile that the government
has lost control - that the FARC, the ELN, AUC, the drug cartels, or nobody
controls most of the country. That may or may not be true, but if it is,
the root cause is still poverty. The goverment's control is obviously
neither socially nor economically effective. La mano dura that President
Alvaro Uribe believes in has never worked, and more of the same won't
work either. The reaction of Colombian philosophers I talked to after
Uribe had first, maybe in joke, admitted he might be a fascist, and then,
trying to look progressive, offered a prisoner exchange, was that an idea
exchange would be more in order.
If Uribe or his successor would punch my keys, I'd suggest a fundamental
idea exchange: to stop thinking of agriculture and brick making and textile
production as business sectors and start thinking of them as ways to feed,
house, and clothe people - to beat the guerrillas by joining them, or
by co-opting their program and doing it better, by taking a cue from Fidel
and Hugo Chavez and actually starting to do something about poverty.
A vendor riding the bus between the last two small towns
before the border of Ecuador had to talk fast. Starting as a quizmaster,
he loudly asked if anyone could tell him the length of a human intestine.
Someone pitched back a guess and, whether it was right or not, was awarded
a packet of near magical herb tea. Another passenger asked if he had any
of his hairnets with him that day to protect people riding public busses
from lice. He did and, still talking, handed out hairnets and herbal tea
packets to everyone who would accept them, while a little girl with her
dad laughed merrily at his spiel and two teenage girls with abundant black
hair ignored him. Then he asked if anyone knew the length of an intestinal
worm. Nobody did, so from his belt pouch he produced three glass tubes,
each containing a fat, multi-coiled specimen. Half convinced after three
days holed up in a Pasto hotel violently coughing that I had TB, I wasn't
willingly interested. But he told us all the things we could get the worms
from, which included most of what I'd just had for breakfast. Of course,
the herb tea would kill them, almost as a bonus, considering everything
else it was good for. Before he got off at the next town, he re-collected
most of his goods and a few pesos for the rest.
Crossing the border took only minutes on each side. There was one friendly
woman immigration officer on each side, the friendliness nothing new in
Colombia. Both sides were smoothly computerized and apparently unconcerned
about the international terrorists the U.S. frets about. "Just personal
stuff?" I was asked, with a wave at my pack. "Of course,"
I said. There were no X-rays, no turnstiles, no fees. I did nothing in
Colombia but surrender my Colombian visa. All I did on the other side
was fill in the few blanks on my Ecuadorian visa and banter a bit with
the border woman, who may have been Ecuador's most likeable citizen. Ecuadorians
are not always friendly or trustworthy, their food is usually drab in
looks and flavor, and their coffee is Nescafe instant.
I traded my remaining Colombian pesos at a slight loss for American dollars,
because dollars are the money in Ecuador, took a taxi to the bus station,
and immediately got on a bus that reminded me of Guatemala. South American
busses tend to be pretentiously first class, called "ejecutivo,"
with numbered seats. Ecuador is a hole in the system, and this was just
an old bus. It was empty, so I picked a seat by a window on the shady
A few tilled and planted fields began to check the mountains, only slightly
imitating Guatemala, since the few newly greening checks only timidly
touched up the white and yellow Andes, and, as if to match the bus and
the mildly checkered slopes, many of the passengers getting on were Indians
whose drably colored clothes, layered against the cold, sometimes frayed
and dirty, only slightly mocked the clean, bright trajes of the Mayas.
The bus stopped constantly and was soon overfilled, so the crew dug out
and distributed a few floor cushions, which soon proved pointless. A fat
and fragrant latino sat beside me and I had to jam my bag under my seat.
The aisle was full and bulging over the seats. Kids crowded around the
knees of the people behind me and against the back of my head, and I thought
of the hairnet I hadn't bought.
We went through several towns with no apparent stations and no signs to
tell me their names. The driver made no announcements and people got on
or off wherever they could get him to stop. I started wondering how I'd
know we'd reached Ibarra. A lavanderia patrona I'd talked into washing
my clothes in Pasto by the kilo instead of "por prenda" ironed
and folded, had told me Ibarra is a much better place to get used to Ecuador
Luckily, there was a sign, and the fat man told me there is a terminal
but the bus wouldn't go there. It would just keep dropping people off
wherever they yelled, "Stop!" And that's how it went, the bus
filling again as it emptied. When the fat man told me to get off at the
next corner, he couldn't or wouldn't move so I could slide my pack out.
I managed to yank it free, climb over him, and struggle through to the
door, but on the street I learned from a pedestrian that I was nowhere
close to the terminal or to any commercial center. Eventually, a taxi
Ibarra is a mixed experience, with a lush colonial park where men with
ancient wooden cameras offer to take your picture. The historic area around
the park is converted for modern shopping, but there is a traditional
market nearby and a shopping mall somewhere else. There is also a lake
with a raceway built around its rim. Off the square, there is one street
where most of the town's scant restaurant options besides fast fried chicken
are. Still battling my cough, I lived four days in Ibarra mostly on chicken
soup in one of the Chinese restaurants, called chifas. Everything else
I tried was a let-down after Colombia.
I was routinely assured the town was "todo tranquilo" but also
routinely advised to stay inside the historic zone and not to go out late
at night. I was still too sick to walk very far, anyway. I sat in the
park and read in the main Quito newspaper about Ecuadorians fleeing from
the river boundary of Colombia because a three way battle on the other
side, a little east of Mocoa, between the FARC, AUC, and the army was
spilling across. People running south said the guerrillas had warned them
to stay inside their houses to avoid confusion but the paramilitaries
were attacking them indiscriminately. In several days of coverage, the
guerrillas were the only faction never directly quoted.
I also read about the army blocking a remote road across the border to
stop drugs and illegal Colombians. But the only social ill I saw in Ibarra
was begging. I saw fewer armados in Ibarra than in Colombia and fewer
beggars, though plenty of both. All the beggars I saw were Indians. A
woman sharing my park bench, after we'd both turned down a beggar, told
me she didn't like Indians because they reminded her of the Chinese. "They
even look alike," she insisted. A travel agent in Riobamba would
later urge me to fly to an Amazon town to see just the Indians in that
town, who she considered a much more attractive race than the Andeans,
due to their having been thoroughly mixed with the Europeans who run the
oil fields there.
There is a lot of overt racism in Ecuador against orientals and blacks,
but, as in Peru and Bolivia, the Indians are the most obviously exploited
and denigrated people in Ecuador.
I had seen no Indians in native dress in Colombia, not even in the historical
clothing museum in Bogota, where all the photos of women wearing the old
Indian costumes on display were obviously latina models. The Indians I
saw in Ibarra weren't wearing colorful Indian costumes, either. Though
some were trying to sell some bright, hand woven fabrics, the women wore
trajes only in that they were uniformly dressed in dark, layered, usually
old clothing, blouses and skirts somewhat alike though probably purchased,
and almost always with a cheap, department store sweater on top. Only
their jaunty hats were in any sense a tribal insignia. Men and women wore
a narrow brimmed, near cowboy hat, of black or very dark brown felt. The
women were almost all overweight, which softened their bone structure
and blurred their resemblance to the Mayas.
They were a lot like the Mayas in the way they talked to me, though, cheerful
and quick to recognize and respond to humor, but defensively dignified
and trying to hide their shyness by affecting more boldness than they
felt. Their charm was spoiled by the jarringly false plaintive act put
on by those who begged, but not all the Indians who came into the town
were beggars. Like the Mayas, they looked incapable of violence. The lower
level of armament in Ecuador may be because the poor are largely Indians.
Around small towns like Ibarra, outside of town I mean, a lot of Indians
live in their post-Pizarro traditional way, in concrete block or sagging
adobe cabins scattered among the fields, poor but dignified. But, in Quito,
I was told, I'd find them very different.
On the way to Quito I missed the equator, my attention co-opted by an
atypical group of laughing, chattering Indian women on the bus, dressed
like dancers in a Hollywood musical. They reminded me of the theatrically
feminine women of Ocosingo in Chiapas, Mexico. They wore identical long
black skirts and white blouses, clearly machine made but heavily embroidered
and modified with capes, their hair, ears, necks and wrists adorned with
gilded beads and colorful cloth ties, long hand made sashes wrapped round
and round their waists. Every woman, little girl, and baby girl wore the
same multi-strand, gilded bead choker. The shy but friendly young mother
sitting with me, who spoke pure, clear Spanish, told me that all they
did themselves were the embroidery, the sashes and the hair ties - and
they strung together their gilded beads. Those women were the only prosperous
looking Indians I saw in Ecuador or would see in most of Peru or Bolivia.
They exited right before Quito, as if to signal a change of scenes.
Quito, rising from behind a high horizon like a row of discolored teeth, immediately
warned me I didn't want to stop there. It must just be that poverty looks
worse dry and off-white. All I SAW as the road reluctantly climbed over
a ridge into a giant rotten cusp, where it ran for miles along the city's
edge - the numberless jumbled together hutches and dreary edificios and
the spiky modern skyline in the center - was otherwise familiar. But as
it went on and on and depressingly, alarmingly on, I decided Quito would
be a one-night stop. An eloquent travel agent in Ibarra had urged me to
spend my time in Cuenca and Guayaquil and on the coast, declaring that
geography made Riobamba a more logical long stop on the way than Quito,
and the endless gray-white graveyard view of the capital as the bus tried
vainly to pass it convinced me she was right.
I began to think, even hope, the bus driver was treating Quito like Ibarra,
bypassing the terminal, stopping only in desolate spots where individuals
cried out to be left behind, but we finally crawled off the main road,
twisted through a network of littered ramps and stopped at a surprisingly
small station perched on an embankment that looked like its construction
had been abandoned in despair.
There was a tourist information booth there where a man and a woman, filling
my hands and pockets with brochures, told me emphatically where to go.
I said I'd done well in the old town in Bogota and... No, they said. The
old town is dangerous at night. But aren't there colonial ho... Yes. But
not good hotels. I should see old town by day and with a guide. Many interesting
events happen there, but only by light of day.
But aren't there other good hotel areas, close to restaurants, banks,
inter... Amazonas, they insisted. The Amazonas area was the place for
me. All the tourists and all their needs are there. It's muy tranquilo
there because there is mucha vigilancia, and it's only a few daytime blocks
from the modern downtown and its central park, with the metro bus going
right by. Hey! What else did I need to know about Quito? Too bad it was
too late in the day to hop a bus for Riobamba right then.
The taxi driver gave me the same line, except he ridiculed the hotels
they had recommended. He knew the place for me. So, to get quickly to
a clean bathroom, I settled for the place he took me to in Amazonas. After
overcharging me, he hung around after I'd been guided upstairs and I assume
he exacted his commission then.
In what looked like a ticky-tacky L.A. neighborhood, I was a block and
a half from a street literally lined with restaurants, cyber-cafes, ATM's,
laundries, bars, tour guides, and souvenir shops. And, unlike in Ibarra,
the cops were there in swarms, like swarms of potentially deadly bees
with their uniforms and guns. There was clearly mucha vigilancia.
I found several of the services on the street useful. But, even in a place
catering to tourists, the food was indifferent. The place I ate typically
insisted I buy a whole bottle of wine, so I drank water and then went
to a bar run by Europeans where I could drink by the glass. Still weak
from my stubborn chest cold, I shouldn't have done that, but I talked
to some travelers there interested in Cuba and handed out some of my hand
printed cards before heading for bed.
The tourist row had turned a corner for almost two blocks, forming an
L, so the shortest route to my hotel was another partially lighted main street, which I recognized as the street my taxi had turned
off of either three or four blocks away. There was, oddly, only one cop
on the corner I started from, and in the middle of the street in the next
block was an enclosed, lighted metro-bus platform half full of waiting
I wasn't sure if my cross street was the first or second corner after the platform,
so I turned into the first one to take a look. I didn't know if it was
familiar or not in the dark, but when I'd walked past the next intersection
without seeing my hotel, I remembered there should have been a small convenience
store and internet place right there, so I needed to back up to the intersection
and go left one block.
I heard the last two running steps before he grabbed me around the neck
from behind and hoarsely growled, "Mawny!" It sounded like the
only English word he knew. The only word my inner voice knew was "No!"
not to his demand - to the nightmare.
In a more basic language of images, because he didn't bend me back, I
knew he was taller than me, I knew his arm was thicker than mine, and
I knew he was black. But the only English or Spanish word in my head was,
Twisting, elbowing, shoving, hotly scuffling, somehow - I don't know how
- I broke his armlock. All this should be hard as ice in my memory, but
I was loose, he was swinging at me, I was swinging not to strike but to
block and escape and yelling all I could think of to yell, "No! God
DAMN you, no! Ni un peso! Nothing, damn you! Get out of here!" and
etc. or maybe not etc., maybe just over and over, as loud as I could,
without stopping - taking time, making noise.
I stepped backward off the curb, my vision blurring as my glasses disappeared,
and I landed on my back in the street. He was still coming, still swinging,
and, with no arm leverage left, I got my feet up without grace or skill
or even aim and tried to kick him in the head, and he backed off. But
he'd gotten hold of my bulging left shirt pocket and he took it with him,
ripping the left side of my shirt half off.
It was a thick, strong shirt I was using as my only jacket. That pocket
was completely sewed up on the outside and reopened inside with a zipper,
and it contained no money but other important things that spilled out
and scattered into the street. But instead of grabbing for anything, he
stepped back. I scrambled to my feet and, seeing another black man now
to my right, I saw them as together.
I intensely wanted back my things in the street, but I saw two men now,
and I stood in the dark, bone tired, stuck in an endless nightmare, at
one corner of a triangle, half blind, facing them both with no coherent hope or plan.
The mugger kept stepping back, and the other man started picking up my
stuff, and I saw he was helping me. I don't know if the mugger walked
away backward or ran. I found my glasses on the curb, put them on, and
could see. I picked up my passport, my memory chip in its plastic case,
some notepad pages and hand printed cards. The new man handed me the rest.
"Se dice," I said, "que es tranquilo aqui" and then,
"porque hay mucha vigilancia." And finally, "So where's
all the vigilancia?"
He told me Quito is dangerous anywhere at night but in that neighborhood
it's the worst, because everyone knows it's full of tourists who have
money and aren't careful. "You shouldn't be out at night alone."
I thanked him of course, and not for his advice. He hadn't come running
or swinging or threatening. He was a small, slender man. He'd come tentatively.
But he had come, and it was enough. Nobody else had. Wherever he is now,
I thank him again. But, at the time, I didn't offer to buy him a drink
or even ask his name. I wanted to get to my room and turn on the light.
Walking the remaining one block to my hotel, I saw the group of people
at the next intersection by the convenience store, looking in my direction.
They'd heard the noise. They were outside looking toward it.
I went past them and rang the hotel buzzer, got my key from the owner,
who didn't say anything, though half my shirt was shredded and hanging
and my face felt hot and bruised. Upstairs, I couldn't make my door key
work and I didn't believe it would, but I didn't want to talk to anyone
about it, so I stopped trying and stood there breathing and feeling exposed
in the hall and trying to breath normally for maybe a minute, and then
the key worked.
In the mirror I saw my nose was scraped from my glasses coming off, one
elbow was gouged and bleeding, and that was all I could see. One big toe
felt sprained. I emptied the other inside pocket of my heavy shirt and
stuffed the shirt into a trashcan, closed the curtains, checked the door
lock again and stood in the lighted room and wondered if I was OK.
I took off my shoes but not my socks and got into bed and under the covers
with all my clothes on and tried to sort everything out. Just as in Medellin,
I felt both humiliated and angry and still in danger. I felt my wallet
in one front Levi's pocket and my passport now in the other, "where
it belongs," I recited. The memory chip was now in my watch pocket,
where I decided to keep it. I told myself I'd get a jacket in Riobamba
and never use the pockets. I'd be cold until then in that high country.
But I was OK. I'd lost nothing but my shirt, which, I thought, didn't
sound good, but it was. I told myself I'd done the right things and won
another skirmish. I was OK.
I thought again of flying home. I was in Quito. There is an international
airport there. I could take a cab to the airport in the morning and be
on my way home surely by noon. I reminded myself I didn't have a home
(before leaving California, I'd given up my apartment and put all my stuff
in storage) and also that, from the beginning of this trip, I had just
taken one step at a time, never knowing if I'd take the next one. I thought
I'd just go to Riobamba. I thought I just wanted out of Quito. I knew
all I needed to know about Quito.
That was a rational thought, by the way. I'm not brave. My most important
method of gathering information when I'm traveling has always been to
walk and walk and talk and talk in every part of every town I stop in.
My eagerness to do that had been waning since Medellin. But I'd seen Quito's
slums, I'd heard its fear, I'd seen its bubble, I'd seen its militarized
police, and I'd certainly talked to the poor. Much, much later, I would
write in my notebook that the poor of Quito said one word to me - "money."
I got up and undressed, cleaned my elbow and my nose with alcohol, and
tried to see my back in the mirror. I cleaned my elbow again and bandaged
it , washed my hands with alcohol, and told myself I was OK. I told myself
I wasn't traumatized. Then I lay in bed, with the light still on, listening
to street noises through the closed curtains and thought I probably was.
In the early morning, when I went out for coffee, Amazonas was swarming
with cops again, looking very vigilant. The taxista who took me back to
the station area was another shark who didn't want to pay the terminal
entry fee and, assuring me nobody used the terminal, dropped me at the
junction of two ramps where, in fact, lots of people were, flattened dangerously
between a fence and the swooping busses coming down the ramps empty, drivers
aides leaning out the doors, yelling their destinations.
When I heard "Riobamba - bamba - Riobamba!" I squeezed past
another bus veering to crush me and ran to where the bus I wanted was
at least hesitating. Nearly first on board, I got a front row window seat,
jammed my pack under it, and had lots of leg space.
As we zigzagged through endless suburbs and the bus filled and the floor
cushions came out and my leg space disappeared, I saw what makes Quito
tick - industry. Numerous factories lure the poor to the vast sinkholes
of life that are the world's capitals. In that sense, Quito isn't really
different from Mexico City or Caracas or Bogota. It's uglier just because
it's dry and dirty-white. And maybe it's worse, too.
A long way out of Quito, in a briefly green country, we passed the perfect
cone of Cotopaxi and, studying my map, I saw that it's not Ecuador's highest
mountain. Chimborazo, one of Riobamba's three peaks, is. Two days later,
because my cough, coming and going, fooled me that morning, I hired a
taxi to take me to Chimborazo's first refugio and climbed to the second
refugio, where the snow began. The taxista climbed with me.
We met a climbing team in the cabin there who'd been turned back by snow
that was treacherously melting under the tropical sun. We could see the
snow literally bulging over our heads. But it was like a desert where
we were and as far as I could see. The first refugio cabin at the base
of a long shale slide was still sharply visible over a thousand feet below.
I'd climbed only that far but I'd reached 16,350 feet, higher than in
Venezuela, higher than I'd ever been with my feet on the ground. I had
to supervise my breathing, my heart and head were pounding, and I was
glad the snow had stopped us. The top of the volcano is over 20,000 feet.
Coming up, we'd seen a flock of wild vicunas. Going back to town I took
one picture of an Indian woman with a herd of llamas and missed a better
one of grazing llamas because I only realized how I could have shot them
two miles or so later. I took some lame landscapes of Indian houses in
checkerboard fields that could have been in Guatemala. They were almost
all sagging, but they were picturesque. Poverty is often picturesque.
In Riobamba, there were a lot more Indians begging than in Ibarra. Coming
out of the supermarket, still struggling to pocket the change, I stepped
into a snakepit of reaching arms, open palms, and musically pleading voices.
Most of the beggars were children, so dirty that I wondered if they'd
added a little dirt for the effect. Within 10 minutes after I checked
into my hotel, I bought a lined denim jacket from a fat and charming Indian
woman around the corner on a sidewalk filled with ambulantes, talking
her down from $25 to $15. I would see her several times on that corner in the next few days and she would always tell me I looked good in her coat.
I put it on and felt warm. The damage was repaired, I thought, and I was
ready to take another step. But I wasn't sure of that. Originally, I'd
meant only to see Quito and Guayaquil in Ecuador, and other towns only
to break up the trip, then fly to Lima. But now I was hearing Guayaquil
is more dangerous than Quito, that Cuenca is a better place to go, but
its airport isn't international. And flying on to Lima was starting to
feel too decisive, like a step from which there could be no turning back.
So, still weak and coughing, I bogged down in Riobamba, trying to decide
what to do, walking everywhere, talking to the Indian farmers in the mercado,
who wanted me to buy their vegetables and kept reminding me they were
poor, talking to people with anti-Chinese posters in their store windows
calling for action before the Chinese took over the country. They told
me it was already too late in Chile and Argentina.
In a place where the food is so plain, still being sick, I should have
lost weight, but I ate too much trying to find something good, and I drank
too much trying to feel good. And I walked the streets to their ends,
and the pain in my hip joints grew. And it worried me that I wasn't talking
to people enough.
I wasn't connecting to South Americans as I do to Nicaraguans and Cubans.
Of course, different places are different. Conversations with strangers
happen more naturally in Nicaragua than in Honduras. It's easier to talk
to people in Mexico than in California. Cuba is the easiest place I know
to meet and talk to people. Colombia had been easier than Venezuela or
Ecuador. But, also, I was getting tired of unfamiliar places. A long way
from the center I found a Mexican restaurant, which wasn't authentic but
which made me wish I was in Mexico, a yearning that kept growing.
Every night, political parades of honking cars went up the street under
my window to the park half a block away and from my balcony I could hear
fragments of the speeches. When I went to the park to listen, I heard
that poor kids needed this and that. Poor people everywhere get a lot
of attention in campaign speeches. Not very far from the center, I found
the bullring, where a farcical bullfight was coming up, with clowns instead
of matadors. I'd seen the posters all over town. Almost next door, I found
the ancient train station with signs on the track pointing to Guayaquil.
But the ticket agent offered me only one-day train tours of the area.
No trains go to either Cuenca or Guayaquil now, he told me.
I finally got on a bus that went past Chimborazo and its fellow volcanos
and on up the barren altiplano toward the cordillera further west. The
famous volcanoes of Ecuador, though higher, aren't on the crest of the
Andes. They are isolated spikes jutting up from the nearly barren slopes
of the Amazon basin east of the ridge line. Chimborazo gives birth to
no streams even, or so I was told. Tributaries of the Amazon come from
the ridge further west and ignore the pointed whitecap as they pass it
on both sides.
We went through a nameless town with bright colored statues of cooking
pots and kitchen utensils in the center strip of its through street. Then
we kept winding on up the yellow mountains covered to the top and over
the top with soft fluffy brush that looked like llama wool. On the other,
coastal side, we plunged forever down what looked like a giant version
of California foothills until the rivers widened, and the patches of woods
became rain forest and banana plantations shading wooden stilt houses
and muddy, partly wooden villages.
The first suburb of Guayaquil, on an island between wide yellow floods,
looked like upper middle class Mission Beach. But the mainland looked
like East San Diego. The bus station was a mega-step above Quito's, and
the airport, where I went next to buy my ticket to Lima, was badly arranged
but pretentiously modern. My second taxi took me through more gray sprawl
and industrial wasteland to the edge of an ultra modernized bubble world
that looks as if it were done by the same agency that created San Francisco's
new Market Street area.
Maybe six to eight blocks wide (maybe not), the bubble world runs from
an extravagant new malecon park on the waterfront at least ten or a dozen
blocks (maybe more) to a huge central park, and maybe a few blocks further.
In between, I got my only reasonably good cup of coffee in Ecuador at
a Burger King.
But the bartender in a bar and grill facing the waterfront park on the
wide avenue obviously recently renamed Malecon 2000 told me he closed
and pulled down the corrugated metal doors to cover the front at 10 p.m.
He said I'd find very little open and uncovered by the metal pull-downs
after that and that I should be inside my hotel by then.
He knew my hotel, because he'd once worked there, and he didn't consider
it really inside the safe zone. In the last light of day, the last two
blocks of my walk back there did look crumbling and dark compared to the
well lit, normal looking center behind me. An inconvenient but growing
nervousness about the night and the poor made me glad to be spotted by
the youth who constantly stands in the hotel doorway keeping watch.
I was there two nights and, during the middle day, to remind myself I
was still in Ecuador, I walked past the bubble walls in several directions
into the worn out areas immediately beyond, and uphill into an edificio
grove that the map showed as a park. Clothing hanging out windows proved
the dreary boxes were full of humans but the steep streets were dead.
Pedestrian traffic was heavy only inside the bubble.
I meant to walk the new malecon park from end to end, but I had to follow
the fence a ways to find an entrance. The park is completely enclosed
on the land side with a high iron fence with big gates to let people in
during the day and to keep them out at night. There are enough armed guards
scattered through the park to watch everyone, and there must be an armed
night watch, safely fenced in themselves, who keep night swimmers with
spray paint from boarding. The sparkling clean park may be the largest
graffiti free space I saw in all of South America.
The name, Malecon 2000, tells me the city considers its beautiful daytime
bubble the way of the future in Ecuador, but I don't see how. If they
made all Ecuador a bubble, where would the losers' edificios be? A competitive
economy has to have losers. Mayoral and other candidates speaking in all
the plazas and on all the front pages while I was in Ecuador were promising
to help the poor, but a system without losers prowling the streets at
night mugging tourists and writing their anger on the walls has to be
socialism - it has to be Cuba - and the only serious calls for a socialist
Ecuador that I saw, more than a few punctuated with the familiar image
of Che Guevara, were angrily written on the walls.
Since my plane flew above the clouds and came down at night, I didn't
see where Lima is until I left on the bus to Pisco and my seatmate assured
me that, any way I left, I'd see the same thing - sand. Based on false
memories of Spanish textbook descriptions, I had arrived with the idea
that Lima, like Caracas, was slightly inland and above its port.
So I told the aggressively helpful reception committee, who grab tourists
coming in the door and herd them into a cheerful airport office to learn
their needs and fill them, that I wanted a room at the beach in Callao,
and one charming girl said, "Callao! That's where I live. You don't
want to stay there. Es muy peligroso por la noche!"
Knowing the lyrics well by then, I chimed in, "Porque no hay mucha
"No," said one of her friends, "It's because she lives
there," But she told me Callao is a port where people come looking
for work and don't always find it, and unemployed men somehow get drunk
and their anger turns violent.
I told her that, nevertheless, I wanted an upstairs room at the beach
and a window with a view. She got on the phone and in a few minutes informed
me I would be staying right at the beach in Miraflores, a beautiful suburb
"Lima is on the beach?" I was assured that Lima and all of its
suburbs are in the same place, on the same plane - geographically. The
helpful crew very quickly arranged lodging for a French girl, a Swiss
guy, and me in the same house and got us a taxi.
They worked for a commercial agency, but they put the French girl, who
spoke no Spanish but had a contract to teach French in Arequipa, on a
bus for there early next morning, and though I and an Argentine couple
they'd grabbed were too independent to be guided by an agency, they answered
all our questions efficiently and got me an ideal room. Only the Swiss
guy, who also spoke no Spanish and had three weeks to see Machu Picchu,
was on their books when I last saw him.
Meanwhile, I was getting another surprise. A Peruvian building brigade
I'd met in the 80's in Nicaragua, where volunteers from everywhere were
working to support the Sandinista revolution, had been so hard to understand,
that I arrived in Peru dreading the Spanish. But, while I could barely
understand the Argentine couple, I found the welcoming committee's Spanish
as clear as Mexican.
The taxi driver, who took us through endless suburbs that looked like
L.A. in the dark to an elevated coastal drive into Miraflores that looked
like Santa Monica, was equally easy to understand, as he assured us, as
if (you must be thinking) this were a required announcement all South
Americans must immediately make to tourists, that the neighborhood we
were going to was safe.
"Es muy tranquilo porque hay mucha vigilancia?" I asked. He
wasn't surprised by the question. He assured me that was the case.
But our host, who also spoke textbook Spanish, when I told him I was eager
to see my first Pacific coast beach in South America (Tolu in Colombia
had been above the isthmus), told me not to go to the beach. "I don't
mean tonight," I assured him.
But he said he meant anytime, because "hay muchos asaltos alla."
I could view the beach very safely, though, he told me, from the top of
the cliff. Weeks later, in southern Chile, a guy who lives in Miraflores
told me he'd never heard that. He said people there just don't go to the
beach. But, having visited Cuba, he acknowledged that Centro Habana is
safer than Miraflores. That wasn't my idea. I never felt in danger in
either place. That's what he said.
Sitting in one of the view restaurants on the crowded beach cliff edge
on two different days, drinking hot coffee cocktails, I saw nobody on
the beach below but men playing soccer on a hard court by the road and
a very few other single men wandering the sand. I've lived most of my
life in beach towns and a nearly deserted beach in front of a huge population
center, even on a cloudy day, seemed strange to me.
Our host told us the neighborhood and the nearby Miraflores main street
were perfectly safe, but as soon as I got into my room, the French girl
knocked because he'd stopped her as she started out the door to take a
walk on that still early and busy main street and insisted she get me
and the Swiss guy to go with her. A good idea in any big city maybe.
The main street looked to me like California, with many of the same stores
and fast food places. I changed a few dollars for soles in a casino, though,
and saw food on the menus I'd never heard of. I tried a croissant that
wasn't good with a cup of coffee that was as bad as in Venezuela, and
I learned a new word.
In Venezuela, something approximating coffee is called guayoyo; in Colombia
the always perfect coffee is called tinto; when it's not Nescafe instant
in Ecuador, any brewed coffee might be called espresso; in Peru they have
pasado, which means they brew a thick coffee syrup, put it on the table
cold in a little pitcher, and give you hot water to mix it with. You can't
make it good. But I'd learn next day that Peruvians cook their own unheard
of food as well as they speak Spanish.
Because my room was perfect and my cold was almost cured, I hid out in
the Miraflores bubble for most of four days. But I read the brochures
and pamphlets the welcoming committee had given me, found their office
and asked them questions, skimmed books in bookstores, bought maps of
Peru and Lima and studied them, talked to people at the next tables who
wondered if they could help me with my maps, and learned from the local
papers that I was in a bubble alright.
There's no newspaper in Peru as good as El Tiempo in Colombia, but they
don't shy away from reporting greed, poverty, horrible neighborhoods,
unemployment, corruption or police brutality. A major running story was
of efforts by the rich to pass new laws legalizing the street barriers
they'd already built in defiance of the fire department to seal off and
protect their neighborhoods from "invasions" by the poor. In
El Comercio, dry and sandy pictures verified a story of poor neighborhoods
without any real streets to protect and very limited services of any kind
due to their low tax base.
Eventually, I got into a taxi, sped a few miles on a freeway with center
strip bus stops, and threaded my way through miles of industrial wasteland
and crumbling downtown to a bus depot which, in a world where bus depots
are usually poorly located, may have been THE most poorly located bus
depot of them all. Thinking La Bandera had not been so bad, I was happy
to learn I was in the wrong place. So I took another taxi along a devious
and crumbling route to the historic main square, where I stood on the
steps at one end, ignoring a plague of beggars who wanted money because
they existed and thought they had to eat, and talked to unemployed people
who wanted me to pay them money to guide me around the square.
A college student guided me to a travel agency (where they told me how
to find the ejecutivo busses to Pisco) and explained that all the cops
carrying big plastic shields were deploying for a possible student demonstration
against the education policies of an unpopular government, and the shields
were for the rocks the students might throw at them because they (the
cops) were there. But he advised me the demonstration, by private university
students, probably wouldn't happen. Public school demonstrations are the
best ones, he said. The same division between schools for people with
"position," as they put it in Colombia, and people without "position"
prevails almost everywhere in Latin America except Cuba.
He showed me the Rio Rimac trickling along beside the railroad tracks
and the huge original old town, now a slum on the other side of the tracks.
We didn't actually go into the slum because, unfortunately, a friend of
his who lived there wasn't with us and, without that friend, he didn't
think we should. But since, on the right side of the tracks, there was
a second floor, big windowed college hangout overlooking the possibly
massing students, the cops, one of their tanks, the trickling river, the
tracks, and the slum, we had two beers there and talked, and I learned
a little more about Lima.
Lima is almost as big as L.A. even though it's literally built on sand.
I don't mean sandy soil with cactus. I mean sand. There was originally
nothing for birds or beasts or people or plants there. A few pre-Colombian
Indians had lived along the Rimac, though you'd never guess it looking
at that sewage trickle now, but the closest real Indian towns had been
100 kilometers away. Lima had landed there because Pizarro considered
it a strategic spot, and, later, Peruvian industry landed there, and industry,
with its need for growth and workers, had made the unlikely city in the
Dreary cities like Quito and Lima are industrial centers, which must be
very big to be profitable. So people with no hope in their own poor hometowns
come to them in locust swarms to work. Because capitalism (not humanity)
requires endless growth, Lima has become a cancer where millions of people
are heaped on top of each other as labor and excess labor, filling the
factories and processing and packaging plants by day, and storing themselves
by night in giant boxes jamming sand hills and sewage gullies, where they
kill their already dead time watching the wrong people wrongly running
and consuming the world on TV.
Lima is not a place to live. Food has to be brought there to feed the
workers who feed themselves to industry, which makes no sense. In a rational
world, industry would serve a rational number of people living in good
places for people to live, to make their lives better, instead of too
many people ridiculously serving industry, wherever it happens to be,
to make life worse. Production should be measured and distributed to fit
people's actual needs and to accomodate and avoid conflict with their
other needs. But the wrong people who run the world are never people who
can construct thoughts or sentences that complex.
Lima is the ultimate failure of wrong-way human hustling and bustling.
Nine million people, one third of all the 27 million mostly hopeless Peruvians,
live in a single infestation on the coast of a vast desert which used
to be the outlying edge of the world of a few thousand Incas, who grew
their potatoes and lived comfortably in the distant uplands before Lima
Beginning as nothing but an army camp, a launch pad from which to wrest
their gold from the few thousand Incas, Lima goes on existing today to
wrest the green from tourists who come to see the remnants and ruins of
the few thousand robbed, brutalized, and murdered or impoverished Incas.
Every destination city in Peru is bursting with tourist services. And
casinos are thrown in to squeeze out whatever the tourists have left over.
Lima also has to exist to warehouse the hopelessly numerous and still
multiplying descendants of the surviving Incas and of the Spanish troops
and the women of the Inca and other Indian men they did in, who feed themselves
to the evergrowing industry needed to feed them and to squeeze enough
extra from them to allow the descendants of the Spanish officers to live
in a bubble world of boulevards and avenues and streets and lanes that
look just like where you live -same stores and everything - where, by
day, they can drive their new cars back and forth on their slick boulevards,
drink and dine sumptuously with the tourists they squeeze in their slick
restaurants, bars and casinos, and then, at night, lock themselves inside
their houses inside their gated neighborhoods, where their poor workers
and poorer nonworkers who live in all the boxes outside their havens can't
get at them, and (just like the workers) watch TV shows about themselves
somewhere else, or maybe even (sometimes for sure) about the few thousand
Incas who used to live in Peru when the air was clean and there was no
Since the demonstration was apparently fizzling, the student guide asked
me if I'd like to meet some girls and try some coca, which, he said, is
not a drug. I declined and headed for the distant bus depot in the private
car of an unemployed man pretending to be a cab driver, who told me President
Toledo is a lousy president because Senora Toledo runs things and she
lacks la mano dura of "the Chinaman" (meaning Fujimori).
He overcharged me, and so did the unemployed man pretending to be a taxi
who took me back to the depot next morning, when I got on a "royal
class" bus and, after zigzagging through several of the fringe areas
I'd read about in the paper, rode out into the vast, empty desert, leaving
Lima behind me, where it still is.
Between Lima and Pisco I saw more empty sand than I ever want to see again,
and some of the world's ugliest, most hopeless looking hovels. I actually
saw one shanty town on the ridge and presumably shifting slopes of a mountainous
sand dune. Maybe it was a mirage. It's not easy to verify everything you
see from a bus. But other tourists on the bus tried to photograph it.
In one of the few widely separated coastal villages, only because the
bus window was high, I saw adobe walled compounds packed inside with stick
shanties plastered against the walls like mud daubers' nests, joined and
divided by maze-like inner passages. Humans (with any luck) don't come
to that coast to strike it rich. They're more likely driven there by population
Maybe to lure some of the excess humans out of Lima, I saw tracts of empty
desert (across the road from empty beaches) divided into empty rectangles,
where buyers (I supposed) were camped in hovels the size of refrigerator
boxes until they could build larger boxes to live in. The uniformity of
some very small, lonely houses already perched on the sand (that reminded
me of the undersized low-cost housing I'd seen and read about in Colombia)
suggested some sort of government project.
Maybe another new Riviera is planned, with deserted beaches. More likely,
those desolate scenes will stay desolate scenes or become new Piscos.
In Pisco, which the bus finally found by sticking to the coast after the
main road abandoned it, they don't make pisco and there is no port. The
industrial port is several miles south, though I was almost sure Herman
Melville had told me it was in Pisco. Maybe in Benito Cereno's day, it
was different. People in town say there used to be deeper water beside
the pier. Now, there is a lost grid of narrow streets lined with adobe
row houses where several thousand Peruvians apparently live. There is
some work at the distant port for commuters, there are a few more jobs
at some small factories back by the road (women's work I was told), there
is fishing, and there is poverty.
There is also a small tourist bubble,
like a colony for travelers from outer space, a block-long alley between
the town's two plazas, with hotels, restaurants, shops, and services for
tourists on their way to a slightly larger beachside tourist bubble further
south, at the mouth of the bay where the port is.
I had come there to break the road to Arequipa in half and because I thought
it was something else. Since I appeared to be the only tourist in Pisco
to see Pisco, and there were brochures that made the other bubble sound
famous, next day, between checkout time from an unpleasant hotel and time
to stand by the main road waiting for a bus to Ica and, from there, a
night bus to Arequipa, I took a taxi to the other bubble, passing more
desolate sand on the way (some of it squared off for development), some
port-connected warehouses, and an almost useless military base where there
were a lot of neat little houses. The military sectors of countries with
no hope of ever having a foreign enemy at least provide a lot of trumped
up jobs and housing.
The other bubble was a small small-boat harbor and a dry-kelp covered
beach with a short line of empty cafes waiting for the tourists who must
have all been out on the boats viewing aquatic life on the point or the
coastal islands. A young tout leaning on a cart of T-shirts and souvenirs
reluctantly broke off talking to her visiting girlfriends and urged me
to try the restaurant she worked for. I determined she'd never eaten there
herself and told her maybe later.
Toting my mochilla, I hiked the crunchy, squishy beach from the cafe row
to a palatial hotel with walled in grounds, a gate, a gateman, and guards,
who let me wander in with my backpack because they liked something I said
(I forget what), and where I sampled a shot of pisco, brewed in the town
of Ica, in a bar big enough to stow at least one of the new tract houses
I'd seen the day before, a mere adjunct to a sprawling inside, outside,
poolside, beachside dining terrace leisurely occupied by a dozen or so
scattered tourists with more money than I had.
I liked Pisco (the town). It reminded me of Mexico. The two plazas were
full of community life, and the color, commotion, and music of the tourist
bubble between them added to the Mexican ambience. Obviously, the mutant
presence of a tourist pocket in a poor town has to attract some malevolent
attention, which probably justified the familiar warnings I got there
as everywhere. But the Mexican ambience and the frankly friendly Piscans,
who talked to me about fishing and cooking and homework as if they always
talked to space people about earthly matters, encouraged rebellion against
the lyrics of alarm I was so tired of hearing, and Pisco was one of the
few places I also saw other tourists exploring outside the bubble walls
they'd been warned to stay within. I mean in the daytime.
All night the bus's headlights chased a narrow road that sped and slowed,
veered along narrow beaches and dodged around the points of high sandstone
cliffs and steep sand dunes that pinned it to the coast. In the dark,
the bus seemed to be right on the beach and trying to find a way off through
the endless, towering wave of sand. Flying over that road from Buenos
Aires two months later, I'd see the cliffs as the front of an ocean of
sand and stone, first flooding the northern pampa and then pouring across
Chile and Bolivia up and over the Andes and all the way to the Peruvian
coast, an impossible desert of snow plastered peaks and naked stone plateaus
of swirling colors, pockmarked by lakes of salt and winding rivers of
white salt, and awash in sand, only rarely relieved by a thin stream of
glistening water slightly bordered in green.
Probably each of the few lost towns the headlights probed, discarded,
and left behind on that coast was justified by one such rare stream that
had survived the desert. In the morning the bus found a break in the desert
wall, climbed inland through a range of yellow hills and eventually into
a wide green barranca, where we found the oasis of Arequipa.
I'd never imagined how desolate Peru is. Further north, there is an Amazonian
backslope like Ecuador's, but in the south, there are only a few green
barrancas and the high grassy plain or altiplano, far from the coast,
where the Incas actually lived. The desert world covers southern Peru,
half of Bolivia, and actually stretches far, far into northern Chile.
But Arequipa's old central square, green and full of life, heroically
denies the city's location. Like gleaming jewels set in old ivory, colorful
shops and restaurants fill the shady terraces under two tiers of cool
white Moorish arches that wall in three sides of the park, where a sparkling
fountain, umbrella shaded food stands, and the crowds and circus tents
of constant amateur events smile back at the frowning white, block-wide,
twin towered cathedral that finishes the square. The modernized colonial
town around the square warmly mixes tourists and townspeople and the shops,
offices, and services that fill everyone's needs.
In the traditional mercado, you can drink beer-and-milk cocktails among
heaps of fruits, vegetables and meat, mostly raised in the
fertile barranca. The modern windows of heladerias and pastelerias in
colonial building fronts display spectacular fruit, ice cream, and pastry
concoctions. Pocket bulk stores specialize in home-made versions of junkfood
like potato chips and roasted peanuts. On an upstairs terrace over the
park, I enjoyed a different original Peruvian dinner each night, even
though I rejected guinea pig. The town even brews its own beer, Arequipena,
a mouthful I didn't try.
Arequipa may attract some tourists because it is close to a very deep
desert canyon I never heard of until I got there, but it's more likely
that it has become a popular place for tourists to stop and stay awhile
because the presentable part of it seems like a really pleasant, relaxed
community in the midst of a very big ambiental desert of both sand and
I'm not writing this to compare the aridity of the Andes to the green
fertility of Cuba. The Amazon basin, shared by each of the countries I'm
writing about, is green, and Colombia and Venezuela are mostly green and
beautiful, but in stark and more important contrast to Cuba, even the
friendly Arequipa oasis has large forbidden casbahs of simmering misery.
The brewery is only one of the industries there. It's Peru's second largest
industrial center after Lima, a prospect that crowds the very finite barranca
with lots of workers and lots of unluckier excess people looking for and
not finding work.
I took a private car tour of the much bigger metropolitan sprawl, nudging
my guide all day to swing this way instead of that to take in the sights
not mentioned in the brochures or his spiel (which duplicated the brochures),
and I saw some of the downside of the desert paradise. The poor there
build their dens or are packed into big cement boxes on uncultivated desert
slopes, and while Colombian choza slopes look like crumbled brick, an
Arequipan slum I tried to squeeze into one shot looked like a heap of
Because western Peru is so hostile to human presence, everyone gathers
in the oases, and since, like everywhere, human population refuses to
stop growing on its own and, like everywhere, it's taboo to say or do
anything effective to stop it, the few cities in the few oases have grown
very big. Arequipa certainly has nearly or more than a million people.
My driver actually claimed it's three million. He said that Peruvian population
is never well counted, which I'd heard before. Anyway, Arequipa is big,
so there are sprawling tracts of raw cement edificios and littler boxes
that match the sandy excess-people dumps of Lima - but with more rocks.
A restaurant siren who survives by charming and luring passersby up to
second floor terrace tables above the palmy central plaza, said she knew
someone living on one of the choza slopes (herself, I'm sure) and could
have referred to a lot of separately degrading aspects of poverty, but
it was the rocks that she told me made her sad.
Agriculture in the barranca depends on countless picturesque terraces
shored up with rocks, and some people live in or around virtual igloos
of piled rocks. A stick and plastic cube built by an Indian woman I talked
to while lining up a shot of one such early graveyard looked better. She
and her three daughters lived on a littered river bank around their kite-like
bedroom rather than in it. She was proud of her construction but fascinated
by my camera and quizzed me about how it works as if she were planning
to buy one. My tour ended at a historic house, now a museum, 10 times
too big for a house and 100 times bigger than one of the rock-pile igloos
I'd seen. The next day, at the east end of the center, I found a big park
half surrounded by a modern tract of near mansions.
One beautiful Arequipa morning, the peace was slightly disturbed by maybe
200 people parading past the plaza carrying signs protesting utility rates
their low salaries would no longer cover. Walking briefly with them, I
asked what they thought of the "hot investment climate" a happy
woman on TV had told me about during my breakfast. Nobody knew what I
was talking about.
The presence of so many poor people calls for armados to contain them
and the armados were there grimly watching that morning. They are always
there. It dismays me when anyone dutifully reports having seen "a
cop on every corner" in Cuba, where there is no military presence
and there are only a few streets where cops with tiny pistols are concentrated.
Yet, religiously positive travel writers keep mum about all the police
and military with big guns and automatic rifles in other places. I didn't
see as many armados in Ecuador and Peru as in Venezuela and Colombia,
probably because the poor are mostly the quietly suffering Indians, but
I saw far more of them than in Cuba, especially in and around the centers.
In Arequipa, the prevalence of police uniforms and big pistols rather
than military uniforms and akas softens the armados' visual impact, but
I seldom walked a block near the plaza without meeting several, they are
always gathered at the west end of the square, and three times during
my short stay there, without seeing why, I saw two Indian men and a tightly
gripped urchin efficiently hauled away from the tourist bubble.
In Cuzco, on the other hand, where there must be an academy, there are
plenty of military, raising flags, marching, contributing to the ambience.
Photo ops, of course. In one of the old town's constant parades, I saw
a graven image of the virgin carried and escorted by a troop of armed
uniforms. Meanwhile, abundant cops stand on the corners, direct traffic
around the plazas, and cluster alertly along bank streets. Cuzco is almost
as heavily patrolled as Bogota because, much more obviously than Arequipa,
Cuzco is a rich tourist bubble surrounded by a much bigger city that includes
plenty of slums. Outside the center, which overstuffs every hill and dip
and straightway of every colonial street and alley with maxi-redundant
tourist facilities, like a rollercoaster of colored lights and white stone,
the city's larger ambience ranges from modern tract to old Fresno to Timbuctoo.
Official stats make Cuzco smaller than Arequipa, but shuffling in through
endless gray suburbs on a bus that couldn't find the center, and then
in a taxi that exhausted a network of merely narrow traffic runways before
it broke into the picturesque, what I'd heard about inaccurate population
counting made sense. And next day, as the train climbed a steep mountain
side, looking for a way out to Machu Picchu, chugging forward on one track,
then backward on another, then forward on another, then back, then forth,
past the back doors of small industries and then past miles of crumbling
dark-brown adobe huts, and a wider view of the city rose around me, Cuzco
looked much bigger than Arequipa, not dry and white, but thick and dark
on the slopes of a very big metropolitan bowl. And it looked mostly poor,
close beside the train windows certainly, at a distance subjectively,
of course, but official stats, for what they're worth, admit most Peruanos
If you think you can tell I didn't explore much of
Cuzco, you're right. I was burnt out and covered with bug bites, and
the things I was looking for were too easy to see, anyway, so I kicked
back and enjoyed the center. The bubble world of Cuzco is a nice place
to be. The food isn't as good as in Arequipa, but if Peru were just
the center of Cuzco, there'd be little to criticize. Varadero Beach
in Cuba may seem like a bubble world, too, after all. But there are
no troops with akas patrolling Varadero, and you don't have to be afraid
to go outside. My attitude in Cuba is the opposite. I never go into
Varadero. Outside the bubble is better. In Peru, the contrast between
the tourist zone and the rest of town, between the destination spas
and the rest of Peru, is stark. Any travel guide to Cuba is about ALL
of Cuba. All of Peru is understandably not offered up to the fastidious.
The internet lists 20 cities over 100,000 in Peru, probably all undercounted
and less than half the names belltinklers to me. The friendly tourist
agency folks in Lima assured me that most of the towns on my map, big
or small, several of which I was pointing at and asking about as possible
rest stops for a bus trip, were not good places to go, urging me to
fly over all of them. Fly, they urged me. Fly from Lima to Cuzco, and
from Cuzco to Arequipa. Peru wants tourists to spend money on plane
rides. But there is probably little vigilancia in most of the empty
circles on the map because there's nobody in them to protect and, with
the Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru crushed, less need to scare the
empty circle dwellers out of joining insurrections. Peru's tourist bubbles
are large, famous, and crowded (I was lucky to get on the train to Machu
Picchu without an advance reservation), but few and far between. The
rest of the country contains only the losers' part of the eternal South
American equation of winners, losers, and armados.
From a plane, you wouldn't see that. From a bus, you see it when you
finally get to it, but you can't go everywhere, and you can't stop and
ask questions or get invited inside. Most of my travel in Mexico and
Central America has been in my own car. I've seen a lot of Cuba by rent-a-car,
picking up hitchhikers and talking as I drove, stopping to see anything
that I had a question about. But a credit card free person can't do
that in South America, and I'm getting too old to hitchhike, even with
my small pack, as I did in Nicaragua a few years ago. In Peru, my fellow
bus travelers were mostly tourists and the bus seldom stopped where
I wanted it to stop.
On the long dry road east and up out of Arequipa to the altiplano, I
saw only a few towns, and there were no Peruvians near me on the bus
to ask why I saw any at all. Maybe necessary gas stations have accumulated
adjuncts, or maybe people still huddle by habit where the Incas had
their outposts. In one town of several thousand in an ecosystem not
even adequate for dozens, I saw shapeless rock mini-ruins with rock
walled dirt yards that could have been the early mistakes of the Machu
Picchu architects - or the work of hermits addled by the sun - or the
shelters of poor contemporary humans with no water to make bricks. I
thought I saw signs of people living in them. People certainly lived
in the rows of plain cubes lining the straight dirt streets of the hot
dry town, and why anyone was there or had ever been there doing anything
I couldn't tell from the windows of a passing bus full of tourists.
Maybe there were mines nearby, but it didn't look like a place to live
or even to endure. We were past what the brochures call the "narrow"
coastal desert, the sand dunes, but it was still desert.
The bus passed several billboards on that road proclaiming the goal
of Peru to be growth. My message to the president of Peru is: forget
growth. Peru's population is at least 10 times too big for its resource
base. The counter productive military should be converted into a domestic
peace corps with one of their missions to teach everyone what I've never
had any trouble getting across in the third world: when 2 parents pass
on their share of the world to 4 children, each child gets half as much
as each parent had; when 2 parents pass on their share of the world
to 1 child, that child gets twice as much as each parent had. Each new
generation of Peruvians gets less of what wasn't much to begin with.
The altiplano is large, but it isn't infinite and it isn't lush. A lot
of the edge that I saw is only sparse,
pale-green bunch grass, OK I guess to the flocks of surviving wild vicuñas
that I saw there twice. Where the grass is thicker and you see Indian
women in their layered clothing and precariously perched derbies tending
mixed herds of llamas, alpacas, sheep and cows, the altiplano looks
On the day-long part I crissed and crossed on the bus up from Arequipa
to Puno and on busses the following week back and forth between Lake
Titicaca and Cuzco, there may be enough isolated adobes to form another
city or two. And I assume they are scattered in the same way, not closely
but constantly, for over a thousand miles through Ecuador, Peru, and
Bolivia. There are probably too many of them for the land, but they
make more sense than houses in the desert or in the cities and towns.
Some small towns are justified by the need for a few stores, schools,
and medical facilities, and, along the lake coast, fishermen live in
towns. But for the most part, Indians in town are the extra people there's
no room for on the prairie. The scattered adobes are poor, and their
roofs are almost always sagging, but only the Indians who have them
Adobe, if you didn't know, is sundried mud, and grass continues to grow
from the always sagging black walls. Normally, the adobe houses are
without plumbing or electricity, and many, maybe most, have no floors.
Estimated hut size: under 100 square feet and up, and not too far up.
Guessing from a distance, very few, if any, are over 400. But often
there are two or three together in a tight group. In Nicaragua, the
groups would be extended families slightly split up. Roofs go from grass
to tin. Newer models made of concrete blocks duplicate the plan - a
cube with a few tiny windows, but with no grass growing out of the walls.
I couldn't verify all of that from
a bus. The houses are almost always too far from the road. I talked to
Indians at rest stops on the road and in Puno and Cuzco to learn, also,
that around Titicaca they spend half their time hauling water for themselves
and their livestock; that they live on their meager crops, mostly potatoes,
and the meat, milk, and wool of their cattle, sheep, llamas, and alpacas,
each family owning only a few animals, maybe selling extra produce, meat,
cheese, and milk in village markets and to restaurants - trying to sell
textiles and handicraft to tourists at bus stops and in tourist bubbles.
Nobody on any of the three busses I rode this way and
that across the plain bought anything. But Indian women trying to sell
me things said some families scrape up enough to put painted plaster or
even wood panels on the mud walls inside their homes. Individually, the
Indians don't get much from the tourists who come to Peru to see them.
They and their adobes are picturesque but poor, but they are still better
off than landless, jobless Indians trying to live in cities or towns.
Their poverty is at least dignified. But their children don't go far in
Puno is a drab dung colored town wrapped around a Lake
Titicaca tourist bubble, which reminded me of pictures I've seen of Tibet.
I stopped there twice. About 50,000 people somehow live there with no
water but the rare rain and the lake and not even enough air to go around.
Lake level is 12,500 feet, and climbing the stairs to my pestiferous fourth
floor room, stopping on every landing to let my heart and lungs catch
up, scared me. Walking in the thin air was hard, and I didn't scorn other
tourists for not leaving their zone; the town is so obviously, repugnantly
poor, I didn't walk around much myself.
In fact, a travel agent in Arequipa had told me to
go to Copacabana and skip Puno, which she called dirty. But I meant to
(and did) zig from Puno to Cuzco and then zag back through Puno to Copacabana,
which is also on the lake but in Bolivia, on my way to La Paz, and Peruvian
distances are too terrific to equivocate with. So I rejected her advice
and, as a result, wound up so covered with bites from my populous Puno
bed that it took two weeks and at least a gallon of 96% alcohol and lotion
to end the agony. I noticed other tourists around the bubble-zone plaza
all scratching the same body areas.
But scratching, gasping tourists only endure Puno for
as long as it takes to tour Titicaca's floating islands and photograph
the few remaining reed boats and enjoy Titicaca trout and alpaca steak
with Chilean wine in their zone before dropping back down
to Cuzco or Arequipa to take a breather and get over their itch. The people
have been stuck there for centuries, maybe always too many of them. Their
poverty is easy to explain. Fishing, mining, and tourism can't support
such an overgrown cluster of people in such a barren place.
In fact, on a national and international scale, those
three industries, plus some exotic produce (including coca) can make a
few Andeans (and outsiders) rich only through an extremely
uneven division of profits, a system that has been so effectively protected
in Peru from revolt by overwhelming police and military force that, since
the Fujimori administration crushed the country's two guerrilla movements
a few years ago, Peru has been temporarily at peace - at the point of
a gun - in the daytime.
All I heard in Peru was that Bolivia is worse.
Along the lake shore between Puno and Copacabana, at first, though, they
are the same place - the altiplano with its thin grass; mixed flocks of
llamas, alpacas, sheep, and cows; small tilled plots and scattered adobe
huts, sometimes in small, tight groups. In other words, the imaginary
border on the west side of the lake doesn't change the way the Indians
on the altiplano live.
The sleepy border, however, where I changed my soles
for bolivianos at a loss, proved I was also changing one Andean country
for another, probably also at a loss, if everything I'd heard was true.
The border itself, though maybe the sleepiest of them all, was like all
the others in its apparent level of security. South American security
concerns are obviously focused inwardly, on each country's own people.
As an outsider, carrying a backpack nobody considered suspicious, I needed
more than a minute on each side to exchange visas and buenos diases, only
because there were a busload of us taking turns. Maybe I never crossed
a border in South America in the company of anyone with an Arab surname.
But I don't think anybody is on much of a lookout for Al Qaida terrorists
- or drugs, either.
In Copacabana, I met a Colombian exile who actually
mentioned drugs. He said he'd gotten fed up with living forever in the
line of potential crossfire between rebels and anti-rebels and drug gangs
and decided to go someplace else to rest in peace. But he didn't mean
Bolivia. He meant Copacabana. Logically, if Bolivia was going to show
me the worst examples of the inevitable and mostly ugly socio-economic
realities that set South America off from Cuba, I guess it made sense
that the first place I came to in Bolivia was the best example of the
only pleasant element always in the set - a perfect bubble.
Copacabana, an extranational enclave isolated on a
peninsula across the border from Peru but also across the lake from Bolivia,
may be the purest and best of safe tourist bubbles. Tourists who go out
of their way to find it are usually solo adventurers or pairs. The merchants
there, many of whom are expatriates, seem as unaffiliated as the tourists.
And, though only separated by a map line from their Peruvian relatives,
the Indians are also peninsula dwellers. The relationship between tourists,
white and mestizo entrepreneurs and Indians seems unusually relaxed. The
26th town I'd stopped in on the continent, it was only the second where
nobody told me when to come inside or where I shouldn't go. The relief
was almost sickening.
Just by crossing the border, I lost the advantage of
easy Peruvian Spanish, except with the Indians, who, just as in Guatemala
and Chiapas, speak the same second-language Spanish I do. But some eatery
owners spoke English, and the music was suddenly mostly American, though
ranging from jazz and blues to reggae, depending on the ages of the fingers
on the buttons. The food was generally good (not a preview of La Paz),
including perfect coffee and my third good breakfast in South America
at the exiled Colombian's place. I even ate well in the Bolivian part
of the small town in one of two restaurants owned and run by the same
There are no reed boats among the plastic fleet pulled
up on the beach and local Indian women sometimes wear sun hats with ribbons
around the crowns that cross in back like Easter bonnets. The comical
derbies worn everywhere in the Andes may have very old Indian roots and
look like derbies only when made of modern hat materials, but I had to
ask if the sun hats were taken from movies on TV. At least every Indian
woman I asked knew what I meant and they all agreed it was possible. A
young woman selling hats from a display that was half derby and half sun
hat wore a billed deerhunter cap.
Copacabana is so cheap, so relaxed, and so free of
any political identity, I'd have considered it as a place I might like
to rest in peace myself, if I hadn't kept waking up in the night in a
panic that I might stop breathing if I didn't stay awake and supervise
my lungs. I had a very agreeable circular room with a lake view in the
turret of a strange old hotel with a statue of an Indian woman sitting
on the roof, and once I knew there was hot water if I got up at the right
time and there were no biting bugs in my $10-a-night bed, fear of suffocation
in the thin air was my most urgent reason for wanting to get on to Chile.
By that time, I was thinking of La Paz, a tilted city
hanging between 10,500 and 12,000 feet up, as only a procedural obligation.
My passport stamps show I spent 35 days in Venezuela, 34 days in Colombia,
and only 33 days in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia combined. But by the time
I'd left Venezuela, it was clear that, while I wasn't going to acquire
any degree of expertise on any of the countries I visited, the factors
that, by comparison, make Cuba look like Paradise to all the poor in Latin
America who know about it, were as visible and unmistakable as flashing
red lights: the shanties, the beggars, the ambulantes, the lack of dignity,
the hunger and sickness, the desperation and violence, the safe bubble
worlds and unsafe casbahs, fear of the poor and the night, too many military
and militarized police, racism, illiteracy, overpopulation and ecological
disaster ignored, and little confidence in the government.
On the other side of the scale, the abundance of flashy
packaged products, which I don't give much importance, was also obvious
- and so were the newspapers. I was already reading La Razon in Copacabana,
and though it's not as good as El Tiempo, it's obviously better than Granma.
But I knew years ago that Cuba's one most important failure is the absence
of a good newspaper there.
Probably very much thanks to papers like Bogota's El
Tiempo, I was finding the list of South American failures compared to
Cuba not even disputable or disputed in the countries I'd already visited,
and I was again assured in Copacabana that I'd see the same things even
more easily in Bolivia. I was reading of corruption in high places daily
and being told corruption is the Bolivian government's specialty. So I
took a noon bus to La Paz intending to be in Santiago within 5 days.
Just before I got on the bus, I had read about the
tendency of tourists to use Bolivia only as a stopover between Chile and
Peru and of the Ministress of Tourism's complaint that the few tourists
who come are always confronted with demonstrations. Not, she hastened
to add, that free speech should be limited, but...
The next morning I found Plaza Murillo in La Paz tightly
guarded by militarized cops and learned from a newspaper vendor that they
were keeping out demonstrators. But the park is already crowded, I objected.
Yes, but those aren't the demonstrators. So the cops know a demonstrator
when they see one? Yes, and they won't let any of THEM in.
Sitting in a parkside cafe with no such thing as breakfast,
hoping to see some action while sipping the same abysmal "pasado"
version of coffee I hadn't enjoyed in Peru, I saw pictures in the paper
that looked like a dreary new suburb I'd seen from the bus approaching
the capital - miles of newly created desert poverty maybe almost as miserable
as in Peru. It was as if someone building a movie set depicting a bombed
town had found it too ugly and started over, foolishly using the same
ugly plan, and kept starting over until the desert by the road was covered
with miles of half-built walls enclosing either nothing or some half built
adobe huts. Division of the bleak new ruin by empty lanes resembling dirt
streets suggested it was meant to be lived in, and, sadly, it looked occupied.
The paper spoke of crooked developers and a crooked mayor reclaiming "invaded"
land with hasty development to make sure people paid something for their
"lots." A demonstration by the dispossessed had led to death
and injury when a sympathizer had set off some dynamite. Most amazing,
the tract was called "Los Jardines" (The Gardens). I wondered
if the Ministress of Tourism worries about transient tourists bussing
past that scene.
With the demonstrators foiled, a military band occupied
the plaza and played marching music. Militarized cops surrounded the band
to keep any negative critics back. Questioning people in the crowd, I
found this was so normal, people generally saw nothing wrong. But while
the soldiers and cops occupied the plaza, the city was shut down that
day by marching seniors demonstrating against pension cuts, and by marching
Indians fed up with being assigned representatives and declaring their
divorce from all established parties.
It can't be hard to shut down La Paz, which is constantly
jammed by ambulantes almost to the point of shut-down, anyway. The bus
from Copacabana, which we'd been told would take us to the hotel zone
near the main plaza, had instead dead-ended in the center of the worst
of the chaotic press, forcefully dislodging a row of sidewalk and gutter
businesses as it backed relentlessly to the curb in front of a hotel the
driver worked for, turning the passengers out with their luggage or packs
into the crowd.
Refusing to look at the driver's place, I found myself
in the situation I'd learned to dread in Caracas and Medellin, pushing
my way through a tight and maybe desperate crowd with all my belongings
vulnerably slung over my shoulder. I don't generally think cops have ever
done me any good, but I and the other frantic tourists probably had less
to worry about as we eventually all caught cabs and fled somewhere not
much different, because the streets of La Paz are almost as crawling with
militarized cops as in Bogota.
Bolivian cops elsewhere that day made the next day's
paper by fatally shooting a man protesting the U.S. sponsored eradication
of coca in national parks. The papers called it the new president's "first"
kill. The president was profusely sorry, oddly claiming that the over-armed
police weren't there to shoot anyone. But he was being almost forcefully
kept from leaving the country to report to his bosses in Washington until
he suspended the spraying operation.
I'd always thought the militants in Bolivia were mostly
tin miners, but students I talked to, sitting in a row on a wall not really
listening to a fiery speaker in the plaza that night, told me that the
tin business is gone except for a few old miners still digging in the
tunnels on their own as a cooperative, with no bosses to protest anymore.
It had been one of them, though, who ignited the unfortunate dynamite
I'd read about.
Though the shoeshine boys ominously all wear ski masks,
the same students told me there is no armed insurgency in Bolivia. Maybe
Che Guevara couldn't start one in the 60's because there aren't enough
trees to hide among in the southwest half where the people are. But labor
unrest and other turmoil is constant. There was little actual fighting
while I was there in September. But there was ongoing civil clamor and
maybe mounting violence, and no street philosopher I talked to expected
the new president to change that, certainly not by playing America's game.
Bolivian unrest and violence aren't sponsored by international
terrorists or drug traffickers (though drug trafficking grows from the
same roots). The root causes are overcrowding of a barren ecosystem and
extreme economic inequality. Bolivia is even more desolate than Peru,
and the people, packed in tightly where they're packed in, are equally
desperate, and the militarized police carry too many guns not to use them.
I was told Sucre or Potosi, which I'd decided not to
see, are "mas tranquilo" than La Paz, but the other big city,
rapidly outgrowing the capital, is Santa Cruz, which I'd never heard of
but which, being industrial, attracts a lot of cheap labor, and was, therefore,
the scene of much of the turmoil I was reading about. Being so desolate,
Bolivia, like Peru, packs its population into a few places. More than
any other South American capital, La Paz made me long to be in Havana.
It's easy to see La Paz, because, like Caracas, Medellin,
Bogota, Quito, and Cuzco, it's on steep ground, on two giant stair steps,
the upper step the kind of squalid building jam tourists go through on
a bus hoping against hope it isn't their destination, the lower seemingly
more open because it's in a huge bowl. Distance, across the arc of the
bowl, may have kept me from recognizing the beauty of some rich enclaves,
but nothing I saw looked good. I was in the old town, and the architecture
was there, but it was mired in the jostling ambience of the impoverished
Even the lower step is 10,500 feet up and the air was
still so thin I was afraid to sleep. A large plaza I could see and hear
from my window was the center of the constant demonstrations, probably
because the crush of ambulantes always there made the crowds look bigger,
and the loud voices of collectivo drivers endlessly streaming by yelling
out their destinations considerably enhanced the air of tumult and protest,
so I joined the crowd for awhile each night, learning that most onlookers
were only looking on and that the ambulantes, who had seen a lot happen
before, considered the nights I was there not very special, probably because
it was raining.
Most ambulantes I've seen anywhere in Latin America,
like most beggars, seem to spend most of their time just hoping. In La
Paz they were hoping for at least 30 bolivianos before they gave up and
went to whatever they called home for the night. That's less than $4 at
8 to 1, and maybe twice that in local buying power, if they ever got that
much. Just walking around watching them lean on their elbows, I couldn't
believe they often did. They were all trying to sell the same stuff and,
in the cold, thin rain, the only ones I saw selling anything were the
food stands, which sell fast food at a fair pace, because their stuff
looks better than the nearby restaurant fare. It didn't look good enough
to me to justify a handheld meal in the rain in the crowd with my other
hand over my wallet, though.
The government holds the unemployment rate down by
counting the ambulantes, who seem to make up half the population, as "self
employed" workers. Most of them are Indians.
Three days after I arrived, so did Pablo Milanes, though
his doctor had warned him he might not be able to stand the altitude.
In a full page article that started on the front page of La Razon and
which would never have been printed in a main stream American paper, Pablo
didn't surprise Latin American readers by telling reporters that he's
as revolutionary as ever and that, outside Cuba, he hasn't seen any improvement
in the lot of Latin American poor since 1959. I can't say or write anything
that sweeping, because I haven't seen enough, but in a way, on the same
day I finished building my case for this article, Pablo virtually met
me in La Paz and laid my last brick by addressing the same theme and drawing
the same conclusion I had drawn.
If I'd known Pablo was coming, I wouldn't have already
had my ticket to leave before his concert, but I did, and, more interested
in breathing sea level air again than in staring any longer at the obvious
failure of "freedom" and democracy in La Paz, I flew next morning
over a lot of dead mountains and deserts toward Santiago. As I left the
Andean democracies behind me, I got a picture from the plane of a road
coming out of the desert and going on into more desert, passing through
a gray diamond shaped border complex floating in a sea of empty sand.
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