HE HAS A GUN, AND WE’RE A LONG WAY FROM ANYWHERE.

 

It’s late when we get to the border, high in the chill of the Guatemalan cordillera. After two dusty, gear grinding bus rides from the town of Huehuetenango, I’m tired and hungry. So when the border guard gives me a bad rate for the local money I want to change into Mexican pesos, I don’t see much point in arguing. I just want to get over to the other side.

But the bus is behind schedule, if that really means anything, and the border is closed for the night. Still, there’s beans and rice at the small, dimly lit, one-story house which functions as a restaurant. We’re in a sort of no-man’s land between two border check points and it’s the only place there is. The owner, a round, smiling, dark-skinned woman is sympathetic. She tells me I can sleep, no charge, on the concrete porch of the house, and in the morning walk down the hill to the border post only a short distance away on the Mexican side. It opens at six, she tells me cheerily.

So with a few shots of tequila to dull the sharp points of my concrete bed, I go to sleep in the company of fireflies. I wake at daybreak in the company of vultures and donkeys, slowly rousing themselves from their animal dreams. I check the time and as soon as the big hand hits the twelve and the little hand is on the six I struggle out of my grungy sleeping bag and wander groggily down to the Mexican border control. When I arrive I can see that it’s little more than a small hut, and to my surprise there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. In fact, there is no one around. Whatever my host told me, there’s no activity here. I tell myself it’s Tuesday. Maybe that’s the reason, or perhaps I’m the only person anxious and foolish enough to get up this early in the morning.

I knock and call, and finally a border guard appears. He looks sleepy and maybe hung over. It not really a surprise: there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do around here other than drink yourself stupid. I wonder what it must be like to live in this god forsaken frontier post. I wonder if it’s some kind of punishment. But whatever the case, life here doesn’t seem to have had a positive effect on this particular border sentinel. He’s evidently not pleased to see me. He asks me how much money I have, and tells me that there’s a requirement for people entering Mexico. I tell him what I think I need to have, but my luck is out. He asks to see it. I realise then that I’m in trouble. I don’t have what I told him I did. I’ve calculated exactly what I need to get back to Canada, and what’s in my pocket is all I’ve got, not a cent more, nor a peso less. And it’s not enough to get into the country.

It’s probably an attempt to be bribed, but I’m unaccustomed to the game. I take him seriously when he tells me I can’t get the entry stamp without the money. I tell him it’s in the bank in Mexico City, which could easily be the case. But he doesn’t buy my story, he just wants to be bought, or see me suffer for waking him up. It’s a standoff, and we go our own ways. He, no doubt, back to his bed and tequila nightmares, cursing the stupid gringo who doesn’t understand, wondering if this is part of his bad dream. I head back up the hill in the mist and pale morning sun, past the vultures and the donkeys, who, heads to one side, seem to watch me curiously, perhaps wondering if their own dreams are still not over.

Back at my restaurant where I stayed the night, the owner feeds me more beans and rice for breakfast. She’s sympathetic but either doesn’t understand the problem, or my bad Spanish. Either way, I have to pass through the Guatemalan border post once again. I ask to change the Mexican pesos I got the night before back into local currency. The same guard gives me another bad rate, instead of returning the amount I gave him earlier, as I politely ask him to. I get angry. I call him a bandido. It’s appropriate, but perhaps not so diplomatic. It certainly doesn’t get me a better rate, quite the opposite in fact. Honour offended, he tries to attack me, only to be restrained by the other border guards. It may be show, but I’m not taking any chances. He’s smaller than me, but like the rest of the guards he has a gun, and we’re a long way from anywhere.

The ride back to Guatemala City is not pleasant, it’s just as bumpy as the ride out, but this time I have the worry about what to do next. After a short search I find a hotel, at least that’s what it says over the door. In reality it’s more like a prison cell: damp concrete walls, small window, iron bed and giant cockroaches. The difference is that here I pay, as long as I have money, and can move out tomorrow, if I have anywhere to go. But I don’t; it’s the cheapest place I can find and money is now in seriously short supply.

Early the next day I make my way to the Canadian consulate where they tell me they can’t do anything: although I live in Toronto I’m not a Canadian citizen, just a landed immigrant. Sorry. The British are more sympathetic, they offer to repatriate me, to Britain. I decline. Finally the Canadian Consul suggests that I could wire someone in Canada and ask them to send me money.

The only people I can think of who are likely to have money are Pete and Sue. The problem is that when I left their flat on Butte Street in Vancouver the goodbye was rather strained. I suppose it all started with sex in the afternoon, with a woman Sue obviously was not particularly keen on, and Pete probably was, or at least had been before Sue got wind of it. It definitely came to head after the accident, after I drove the car of that same woman it into the back of her boyfriend’s vehicle as we slipped away from a party. The accident wasn’t serious and though I banged my knee it wasn’t particularly painful. But it was good for a little sympathy. And as we decided it was best to say that she had been driving, I was able to stay out of the way and avoid the worst of the trouble. I felt sorry for her, but I never saw her again.

It seemed like a sign; it was time to leave and head South. I said a rather strained goodbye to Pete and Sue, who had also been at the party, and set off down to the border with the guy who was going to give me a ride to San Francisco. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that although he was Canadian he had been living in the US until fairly recently and had only left when it looked like they might send him to Vietnam. He was a draft dodger as they called it. I had no problem with that, but trying to cross the border with him was not a smart thing to do. He was probably lucky the US border guards only turned him back. They weren’t known for being generous.

When I showed up again at Pete and Sue’s place I didn’t get a particularly warm reception. I got the feeling that they had seen enough of me for a while. I stayed two days and then caught the bus to Portland. A small girl travelling alone cried the whole way.

So now, three months later, stranded in Guatemala City with no money and no friends, Pete and Sue seem to be the logical if somewhat awkward choice. I console myself with the fact that apart from the recent circumstances, they’ve been good friends and anyway, there really isn’t anyone else. I send the telegram and I wait.

I’m on my own except for the roaches, and I can do without their company. I take to lying down at night with my boots on, suddenly switching on the light and stamping on as many of them as I can. But the brown shirted army can afford to sustain a few losses, and always seems willing to come back for more punishment. They always win, and I turn over and go to sleep. In the meantime they busy themselves eating into the paper bag I keep my daily bread in. On the positive side, they don’t seem to like bananas, the other staple of my meager diet, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to agree with me. I get diarrhea. As I don’t have any money for pills, I just suffer, and try to take it out on the cockroaches.

In the mornings I walk down to the market and buy my daily ration of bread and fruit. In the afternoons I hang out wherever it´s cheapest or just wander aimlessly around the city. In the well to do neighbourhood I watch the rich with their cars and their bodyguards armed with automatic weapons. In the city centre I watch the desperately poor indios and their children selling baked corn bread and vegetables on the street. For amusement there´s the independence day military parade featuring a World War II fighter fly-by.

I talk to the few American travelers that have wandered in, and to the inevitable Peace Corps members, who commiserate with my predicament. I wonder which of them work for the CIA. The days pass slowly. I´m hungry. The smell of tortillas and roasted corn is seeping slowly into my skin.

* events of September 1971

Advertisements

CHECKMATE CHARLIE

March 2006

Berlin brings a lot of things to mind, but I can’t ever remember thinking of friendliness as one of them. So arriving at the West Berlin bus station late one slushy January night, it was with little surprise, and no little dismay, that I listened to the husky voice at the other end of the telephone line tell me that no, it was not possible to stay, that the friend of a friend now ill with a un-named and unconvincing ‘communicable disease,’ would not, as previously arranged, be able to put us up.

A second phone call produced the name of a hostel at which we might find shelter from the storm, a vague address and the number of a bus that would surely take us to the door. Rominter Allee, I said to the bus driver. Jah, he replied as we sat down. But after fifteen minutes of driving through the dark and wet Berlin night, Rominter Allee remained as elusive as a needle in a wet haystack. Aware of our plight, some of our fellow passengers suggested in broken English that, no, this was perhaps not the bus that would take us there, wherever it might be. We changed buses, but our luck was no better. We changed to a taxi. Surely a taxi driver would know the city well enough to get us to Rominter Allee. The driver was more friendly than the bus driver and seemed to know the city well enough. Ah, Rominter Allee! Jah, he said, and we felt reassured. After ten minutes we ended up at a British army base.

We changed strategy. We asked the driver to take us to a cheap place to stay, but after the second three star hotel in a row, and with the witching hour closing in, we had to insist that cheap really meant just that. He finally obliged and although we had no idea where we were, we felt relieved as we ascended the small creaky staircase to our second story room. It seemed like a palace. Our happiness only increased as we drank the bottles of wine that we were no longer obliged to share with our unwilling host.

In the morning our heads were cloudy but everything else was clear. The hostel was located in a reasonable area, the cost was within reach and the rotund and garrulous owner, while not the godmother of last night’s fairy tale, did seem decidedly good natured. The weather was less so, but that and the brick wall visible from our room seemed pretty much irrelevant. We had two days to kill before we left for Poland; we spoke no German, but we had good boots. We bought a map.

We walked and walked. The weather held and a weak sun occasionally poked its welcome face through the murk. We ate bad donner kebabas late at night outside the main railway station, wary of the fierce looking punks and drug zombies that lurked in its dark recesses. We paid the obligatory visit to the Wall and Check-Point Charlie, peering spy like through the mist into the forbidden zone of East Berlin. We took shelter from a tidal wave of demonstrators that moved at surprising speed towards us and away from the helmeted, shielded and truncheoned police that chased them. We made preparations for the journey.

There was the problem of the Polish we didn’t speak, and Polish-English dictionaries, we realized, were not high demand items in Germany. But by then it was too late to worry, we had survived these last days without much German and surely it couldn’t be worse. We made our way to the station as dusk approached and the furtive night dwellers began to take up their positions. We settled into the train’s old style compartment. The only other occupant was a small overweight woman in a fur coat accompanied by two large suit cases and a small son who said nothing. She told us in strange American English spoken with heavy accent that she was from Riga the capital of Latvia. The train jerked, clanked, and left the station.

Unexpectedly, we stopped a few minutes later in East Berlin; Soldiers lining the platform. This was not part of the agenda. No one else was visible apart from a man in a different colored uniform who we took to be the station master. Our traveling companion who might have been expected to know more than us, looked disturbingly confused. Passengers began disembarking while we looked at each other in panic. Did we need to change, perhaps this train only went as far as East Berlin and another would take us on to Warsaw. We had no idea and no way of asking. We looked at each other blankly. No, we should stay on the train. Yes, we should get off with our bags.

The Latvian woman decided to make her move, lowering her bags and disembarking. We decided to follow suit. We changed our minds and put them back on. We took them off again. We asked the station master about our destination. He looked at us disdainfully, spoke a few words we did not understand, and moved away, imperiously issuing orders. We walked up and down the line of soldiers who stood, impassively, bayonets fixed, along the length of the platform. They were guarding something but it wasn’t clear what. Keeping us in, or keeping others out? We pleaded with one who seemed to show just a flicker of sympathy. “Warsaw, Warsaw,” we said, gesticulating as if somehow our hands would magically would produce the answer our words could not, but the guard stood mute. There was no other way out. We got back on the train and waited.

Events of January 1990

ABOUT THE TIME WE WENT WEST FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS

It’s late January. I’ m ‘seasonally unemployed’ as they say, drawing the dole until the race track opens again in February. Paul is heading off to Edmonton to a job in a therapy centre for handicapped kids. It seems like an opportunity. After we arrive I’ll head over the mountains to Vancouver and see all my old friends for a couple of days. I’ll be back in two weeks.

We leave on a snowy morning, sent off like Shackleton’s heroes in Paul’s ’65 Chevrolet, a monster of a car which has room for everything, including his house plants. I have just got my licence, for the second time, and am confident, more or less, that I can share the driving. But for some reason we don’t pay much attention to the fact that the car is heavily loaded behind, the weight distribution uneven, not calculated to improve road holding.

Heading North from Sudbury around the northern shore of Lake Superior, I begin to realise that I am terrified by the possibility that on a tight slippery curve the back loaded Chevy, and I, just can´t handle, we might, just might, drift into the path of one of the monster trucks that are travelling all too frequently in the opposite direction. The conditions are not like they were in Liverpool. The road is two-lane and narrowed constantly by drifting snow that tends to cover the slick patches. The car’s power steering makes me feel like I´m driving on skies. And I can’t ski. To complicate matters my feet are being chilled by the wind that’s whistling in through the hole in the floor we have only recently noticed. Twice we, that is to say I, drive into a ditch. That we don’t die is something to be thankful for. We get out somehow and head off again in a sort of Laurel and not so Hardy prairie adventure. Paul drives the rest of the way.

After making up for time lost in ditches, we stop around midnight in a National Park on the North shore of the Lake Superior. “Wow man ! look at those stars. Let’s pull over and smoke a joint”. We do. We walk across a frozen lake admiring the glittering night sky. “Wow Man !”. The night sky is a jewel, but as we walk back we realise that the car is axle deep in the snow. “Wow man, heavy duty”. It’s past midnight in an isolated park, North of nowhere, and we haven’t seen a single car drive by since we stopped about half an hour ago. We’re worried. We’re really worried. Worried that we don’t have the blankets or candles or any of the other things they tell you to take if you don’t want to freeze to death on a lonely highway north of Superior. “Oh shit man”.

I don’t know what we do, or how we do it. Perhaps we dig with our hands or put branches under the tires. We certainly pray. I keep thinking about stories of mothers who wrestle cougars or crocodiles to death, or lift cars over their heads to save their children. It feels like the same kind of mystical experience. I know Jesus is on our side. On the third try we get the car out.

It begins to dawn on us that we’ve been optimistic about the time it will take to cross the prairies in the middle of winter. Optimistic about the amount of money we need and optimistic about the ability of the house plants to survive. When we finally arrive in Edmonton, the snow is piled five feet high and the house plants are dead. Thankfully we are still alive, but we have no money. We stay the night in a room in the therapy hostel, and in the morning I borrow five dollars from Paul, who borrows it from someone else, and buy a bus ticket to Vancouver. I leave the next day. We wish each other good luck.

On the other side of the mountains the weather is much better: the grass is green and the cattle are fat. But one thing doesn’t change, money is still a problem. Thankfully there are refuges for those who don’t have any: shelters for the needy, which I have never considered myself to be, at least until now. After convincing those who needed to be convinced, that, Canadian citizen or not, I’m stranded with no money or place to stay, I’m given a bed in a men’s hostel close to Pigeon Park, where the pigeons are outnumbered by the drunk and homeless. There I see the first person I know, ‘Max’. We had met a few years ago picking strawberries in Abbotsford, about twenty five miles from Vancouver. I’m glad to see a friendly face. I call out. He looks at me blankly and wanders unsteadily into a grim looking hotel.

At the hostel they give me vouchers for meals in the White Spot Lunch, a greasy spoon with its complement of cigarette mouthed waitresses, men who would not be out of place in a 30’s Bowery film, and an owner with a drooping moustache and an enormous belly covered by a grease stained semi white apron who looks like he has seen his best days, but might still convince himself to cut your throat if you don’t pay. I eat well. At night, back in the dormitory, I sleep soundly, with wallet and knife under the pillow.

After waking and checking that I‘m alive and documented, I set off in search of a more comfortable place to stay. I hunt through telephone books and anything else I can think of in search of friends, anyone I might know. But like the history of the men in the hostel, no trace is evident. Then, on the third day, salvation calls. My heart leaps when, sitting in a bus stopped at a traffic light close to the Burrard Street Bridge, I notice a Volkswagen passing in the opposite direction. There she is, a vision of a clean room, conversation, and perhaps more. In a Zhivagoesque scene, I shout and wave frantically, Sandy, Sandy, Sandy … while she, oblivious, drives off slowly in the other direction.

I give up on my invisible friends as a source of shelter, and head to the race track in the Pacific Exhibition Grounds. I know the season is to start around February or March, and I hope I might find a room in exchange for work. But fate doesn´t seem to be on my side. The scene is desolate. Apart from the seagulls shitting on the Greenpeace boat forlornly exhibited in the winter rain and the few hardy ducks that sit contemplating their navels, not much seems to be going on.

Of the few people braving the rain, no-one is interested in giving me work. I go back the next day, and then the next, until finally I manage to persuade someone to take me on. Wayne, a thin, dapper man with a Clark Gable moustache and an affable manner, seems like a decent type, and appears to be doing well enough. He has some good horses, he says, they’re in California for the winter…he’ll give me a 5 by 5 concrete block room complete with thin mattress, iron bed and burlap sack over the window, some horses to look after and, best of all, money.

It rains all the time. I feel like I am living on like Noah’s Ark. But nothing lasts for ever. Soon the spring leaves begin to appear. I begin to enjoy life. My little room becomes a refuge. Each morning I step out to look across the river onto the coastal mountains and breathe in the smell of the cedar mills down in False Creek. I am as happy as I have ever been. Spiritual revival, the Tao, Lotus Land. I am walking on air. I meet Laura. She works walking ‘hots’, is interesting, and is interested in me. So we sleep together, do acid in Stanley Park, talk horses, drink wine and watch foreign films at the somewhat unfortunately named “East Vancouver Cultural Centre”. But nothing lasts forever.

Tony is my co-worker, we look after about eight horses each. He has a couple of his own in the barn and is an experienced worker with aspirations of sorts. Tony definitely does not walk on air, nor is he interested in the Tao or the East Vancouver Cultural Centre. He likes to play tricks on me. He talks of animals suffering from ‘rain scalds’. I suppose I bother him. I work hard and don’t complain, and Wayne promises me one of the good horses that are to arrive shortly from California. Maybe this is the key, no way to be sure, but I’m certain that something is wrong when Tony accuses me of giving “needles” to his horse. An absurd idea perhaps, but Tony’s sense of the absurd is not that well developed. He isn’t keen on his “hippy” co-worker, so the long hair, and the needles, have to go.

The confrontation starts. Wayne stands by but says nothing. Tony goes a little berserk and hits me somewhere. Surprised, I do nothing. He hits me again. This time I fall back against the wall. He stands back shaking, neck bulging, face purple, fists at the ready. This is his mistake. He lacks the killer instinct. At least I can say that for him. Or perhaps he is just so certain that hippies high on love and peace don’t fight back. As he comes for me the third time I hit him a good straight left, and that’s that, suddenly it’s all over. I see him the next day in the racetrack kitchen. He has a black eye. “It was his ring” I hear him say. I tell them at the barn that I was once a boxer. I think some of them believe me.

I quit. Going back East, I tell Wayne. Just like that. It seems unfair to Laura. I like her, and but for the unforeseen would probably still be here, working. It even seems a little tragic, but for reasons I’m not able to define, I’ m determined to go. We sleep together for the last time, and then go down to Central Station. It is early May. I board the train for Edmonton to see Paul, the 65 Chev, and the duck he now has living in his bathroom.

BOLIVIA ON MY MIND. (Part I)

When I first arrived in South America in the nineteen seventies, supposedly on my way to Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and the, for me, mythical Magellan Straits, I don’t suppose Bolivia was on my mind.

I didn’t make it to the straits of course. I got stuck in the South of Colombia, in Cali to be exact, with no money to get any further, in the company of a blond German friend who much to my dismay turned all the girls heads, a rolled up dollar bill and some white powder thoughtfully provided by a member of the Peace Corps.

How come you’re back so soon asked Anne, a woman I’d met on the plane from Panama (a DC3, I think it even had bullet holes from the Korean War) to Medellin 1, where I showed up only a month after I’d supposedly left on my round South America tour. I can’t remember my reply, it was probably pretty feeble, but I do remember feeling awkward, as if I’d somehow failed, despite having travelled from Toronto across Canada and then down West Coast of the US and Mexico, through Central America and eventually into Colombia. In retrospect I hadn’t done so badly, and definitely had no regrets about missing Bolivia.

The second time around

The objective this time, some forty years later, was not Bolivia but rather, once again, Argentina. The result wasn’t much different, although I did get closer, to Bolivian border town of Bermejo to be exact, a place where everyone seems to be involved in trading something or other, tourists are not that common, and the presence of huge rafts supported by what seem to be airplane inner tubes, and that don’t appear to move during the day, suggests that most of the traffic and the goods are contraband. Isn’t that what borders are for?

It was a close run thing however. I actually crossed the river to Aguas Blancas on the Argentinean side, where both the Bolivian and Argentinean migration offices are housed. In fact, I made the short journey twice.

Looking back I suppose I was somewhat casual about getting into Argentina. It hadn’t occurred to me that a Canadian passport would be a problem, and at first there wasn’t. It was Patricia that got the grilling: Oh, Colombian passport… wait a minute says the female officer, who, fingering the document as if it were property of a leper, promptly disappears into the back office. She reappears a few minutes later accompanied by a burly white shirted male officer who fires a barrage of questions: you got a name in Argentina? anywhere to stay? A Hotel? A friend? You have a flight out? A ticket? etc. etc. etc.

The frontier: Bermejo and the Bermejo River.

Aguas Bancas-Bermejo - Bermejo, Bolivia
Photo: Walter Ramallo Viajeros.com <http://www.viajeros.com/fotos/bermejo-2009/855502&gt;

The questioning continues until someone notices that I haven’t paid the ‘reciprocity tax’. Patricia is now forgotten. What’s it all about? The Australians, the Canadians the ‘Americans’ charge us a fee for getting into their countries, he says, so we do the same thing. Hence the reciprocity bit.

It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable thing to do. I tell the official that the Brazilians did the same thing when eye scans were made obligatory for entering the U.S. Anyway, I’m quite willing to pay. So how much is it? He doesn’t know, or at least he’s not sure. Could be US $120 he says… but you can’t pay in cash, only on line… and this, of course, involves crossing the river and going back to Bolivia. It wasn’t the answer I‘d been expecting.

There’s a chance, I imagine, that they’ll let me in with my UK passport, which I’m also carrying. I suppose that if it was simply a UK passport my chances would not be much better, perhaps even worse given the ongoing Malvinas-Falklands dispute, but as it’s an E.U. document I expect, or rather hope, that there will be little or no problem. I’m wrong. It has no exit stamp from Bolivia, says the white shirt stiffly as he examines the passport. No, that’s in the other passport. But it has to be here in this passport. Why? He doesn’t have a ready answer, and I strongly suspect that he’s wrong, but unsure of himself as he has never come across something like this – and he’s certainly not going to tell me that – rather than make some sort of mistake or appear uncertain, he refuses. Better to be wrong than sorry.

As I’m getting the exit stamp annulled, the Bolivians smile at me, and I admit that perhaps it’s better this way: better to give the money to the Bolivians, who are poor, than to the Argentineans, who are not. 2

Back over the river in Bermejo, we reconsider, rent a room in a cheap ‘hostel’ where the shared and rather grubby bathrooms don’t work, the shared shower has only a single board covering the window and the water is cold. If it had bars it would be called a prison. There are no other tourists here. Our room is also pretty dingy, but on the positive side, it’s cheap and there are only a few cockroaches to be seen, at least during the day. At night we wrap our food in a plastic bag and hang it outside on the washing line, so the greedy little beasts can’t get at it.

When I finally log on – the internet is often desperately slow in Bolivia – the reciprocity tax turns out to be only $75, and we decide to pay it. But it doesn’t make any difference, the system won’t accept my card, and when I call Buenos Aires to find out what’s going on, they tell me they don’t take debit cards, Visa or otherwise. It’s what ‘you’ ask us for says the friendly but determined voice at the other end of the ‘line’. I’m willing to pay I tell him, I want to pay. But it doesn’t work and, besides, it’s late on Friday afternoon…

I go back across the river the next morning in a final attempt to get into the country, but while the officials are different, and very pleasant, the answer is the same. It seems a shame, but rather than staying another day in Bermejo we decide to turn around and head back to Tarija and Bolivian wine country. Argentina won’t cry for me.

* * * * * * *

1.  Medellín:  The first visit to Medellín, was, shall we say, interesting. The years of silver and lead as they called them (Años de Plata y Plomo ) which roughly translated means pay up or you’re dead, had not yet begun: Pablo Escobar, a local resident who would become the world’s most famous Cocaine King, had only recently left University, while the Medellín Cartel, which by 1989 had become so powerful that it declared ‘total and absolute war’ against the Colombian government, was still in its pre infancy. That said, a bomb did go off somewhere in the city while I was staying, and the guerrilla was ‘out there somewhere’ Anne warned me one day when we went wandering in the countryside. She wasn’t joking, although the second phase of the Civil War, this one involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead by Manuel Marulanda or Sure Shot (Tirofijo), was also still in its initial stages.

All in all, though, I felt pretty safe in Medellín. It was one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen, the other being Vancouver, and seemed a pretty relaxed place to be a drink coffee, or tinto as they call it. Although on a more personal level there were ‘incidents’. For example, the night the American exchange students, (female and from Boston if I remember correctly) arrived at the house where they and I were staying, followed by two drunk and rather impatient Colombian men. As the only male in the house at the time I was expected to stand up to them, and ‘persuade’ them to leave. I don’t know what they said to me, but I do know that the decibel level was high and that if the face of one of them had been any closer he would have been kissing me. It clearly wasn’t meant to be friendly and I was certainly worried, in part about how of the house owner, a local university professor – whose friend ran a local steel mill and owned an impressive vintage car in which we would drive down to the local liquor store to buy Aguardiente – would feel about his furniture being splattered with blood, skin and pieces of bone. Mine, I might add. In the end I suppose my passive resistance (I like to think of it as Gandhian) had some effect, at least that’s what I tell myself, although the men finally left only when one of the girls began screaming the house down.

2.  Bolivia is a poor country: According to the CIA Factbook (yes, that’s the dear old Central Intelligence Agency), Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America, even taking into account Surinam, Guyana, and French Guiana, and that despite growing at a fairly healthy rate (5%+) over the last few years. With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per Capita of only US$4,900 (the UK weighs in at some US$37,100), it lags some way behind Argentina, whose GDP per capita is US$17,700. Of course, the statistics offer little hint about how the money is being spent or distributed, and given that South America is the most unequal continent on earth, the panorama in Bolivia would likely continue to be pretty desperate if it weren’t for the advances made in the last few years under the Morales government. There are no real numbers for inequality (GINI index) since around 2008, so it’s impossible to come up with hard data to support the claim, but anecdotic examples include the fact that Bolivia is one of only three countries in the ‘developing’ world that provides an income for all its retirees and that the Morales government recently raised the minimum wage by 20%. A cynic might point out that there’s a presidential election just around the corner, but that’s how democracy works, isn’t it? Or is that just being cynical?