Disturbing the Spirits

Clouds so close they move across tops of tall buildings like sheets of feathered glass, tilting. Night approaches, hence the purple mood, lights on wet cobblestones, vendors laughing at me handing over 20 cents when she wanted two pesos, juice steaming but only warm. They won’t change the money because it has a pen mark. I am surprised also to be reminded of Syktyvkar. Here the streets are the same kind of quiet, feature the same strange white minibuses. People appear, disappear, glimmer like mirages.

My first day Maria and Johann take me on a hike behind a rich neighbourhood. I notice nice cars outside the houses, not locked up like they would be in other South American cities. Maria responds, Not so much here. In El Alto and other poor areas, though, they’re always finding bodies in rivers and buried places.

A wealthy family watches us from a large turquoise living room. We climb the strange cement-like wall of rock crags made almost of sand. Everywhere frozen landslides, evidence of the last hard rain, of earth sliding away.

She says, Here it is, La Paz from a different side. One must climb or descend to get absolutely anywhere.

Sun will hit one strip of houses but not the other or one mountain but not the other. Que extremos, Isa observes of the extremely wealthy minority and the extremely poor indegenous majority. Shows me the gated community. What do people do in Bolivia to arrive at such wealth? I ask. She smiles sweetly. Roban, is all she says. They steal.

We stop to rest. She says, Here it is, La Paz from a different side. One must climb or descend to get absolutely anywhere. The altar to those who have died in the tunnel has a little light on inside it. I look up. It is connected to the streetlight’s powerlines. I am under a white net.

I climb down the rock with Maria. She remembers being in Finland in 2001 when the big crisis hit in Bolivia, the one that was harsher than what just passed in early summer of 2005, the one where people died. This last shift of government (though Isa told me no one wanted the job) was Todo normal, Maria says. You could still get things. I was inside watching TV — it´s not my problem, she says. I see faces everywhere in the rock.

They don’t just bury the llama fetus. They burn it first in the fire with liquor and little wooden houses. It’s ceremonial. You ask for what you want as it burns.

On the way down I spot a piece of paper crumpled in a fissure in the rock. Have some charmed notion of a treasure hunt or secret note. It’s a piece of notepaper someone has used as toilet paper. Johann is waiting for us at the ravine. He wants us to come inside the cave he just found. We follow dry sewage to its dark mouth.

The spirits are complicated. A city known first through words, localized on the page — but then the words disappear. Looking through the hole in the high bridge at the impossibly small world under my feet, I realize I don’t often think of what is outside an elevator when I am in one. When I finally meet the Diva, she is smoking cigarettes and chewing coca in her bed. I bring her peach pizza. De la puta los colores comments Maria on the gift I brought her mother of painted ceramic — “of the whore those colors,” but it’s a compliment — while Johann, all thin over-six-feet of him, plays with Manuela the moppish white puppy on the Diva’s bed. The Diva flips through radio stations and suddenly one of her own poems is being read aloud by some man and is just ending. Both she and her daughter recognize it.

Puede ser persona, says Maria of the mostly-buried soft ball-like thing in some sort of bag in the sandy soil at the mouth of the cave whose entrance is littered with human shit. It does smell like a dead animal around the bag. We continue through the cave, climb for long minutes in the pitch dark towards a small bit of light at the other end. We emerge into a strange sort of rock-room with tall, flat walls and no way out but the way we came.

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