Disturbing the Spirits

It is dangerous when it rains, Maria tells me by way of introduction. The whole city is built on sand. Houses fall every year. Water loses itself off the windshield, sky deep and cupped. Up in El Alto the city is an accident, tan building blocks spilled all over the mountain. The shape of bare earth on the mountainside is like someone bending over, someone walking, but I am prone to see people in natural structures. Solitary skies like these make more room for God. God, or whatever name you have for vastness.

The shape of bare earth on the mountainside is like someone bending over, someone walking, but I am prone to see people in natural structures. Solitary skies like these make more room for God. God, or whatever name you have for vastness.

I don’t know yet what holds us. I arrive in La Paz from Quito at night. The taxi descends into a bowl of lights. Bolivia’s independence day, groups crowded around backs of trucks. I am here to meet the Diva but she is still away; her daughters, Maria and Isa, wait with a sign at the airport. I say as we dip and dip that this is the one place where old people could say, When I was your age I had to walk uphill both ways to school, and actually be telling the truth. Ley, says Maria and pours me some more spiked tea out of a thermos. “Ley” is a word for “cool” around here. Technically it means “law” or “rule.”

My first day at 12,000 feet I round a corner in your basic cobblestone street and suddenly it all tilts up and the street ends in a long stairway. I climb them and que jodido huevón it’s like the thump of a heart, a hammer. The walk began with a sewer, open top. Outlandish weeds surround, disappear into, appear out of. Look around at a barely true city that has just bloomed, deserted and pale. A neighbourhood shop, a woman in traditional dress hanging onto the bar of the locked front door, elbows bent, one toe swaying. Peculiar winter sun, broken mountains.

I am afraid I will wake one day, arrive on my dream-float to old age, which seems a jungle of dream-floats, never having gotten off, never having disentangled myself from the gold circle of light. In the afternoon, as I doze and the chest on which my soft breasts sag heaves with breath, I will do the same as I do now in my twenties, as I have always done — daydream that someone will come in and notice me, the way I did as a child when I pretended to sleep so potential spectators would think tender thoughts.

Man who walks, the green man in the stoplight, then as the countdown begins from five he begins running, encouraging pedestrians to sprint. The staggering fire swallower performing at no one’s behest in front of cars in front of the stoplight. Drunk, they say, and wave him off. She always looks for coins in her ashtray when children knock with gum. I wasn’t supposed to be this fazed by altitude, arriving as I do from another mountain city. Maybe the glimmer never lifts away.

The afternoon angles away like a flag, takes itself with it, begins to rain. We all go home in our dark work clothes in an evening hidden by fog. It all gets darker evenly, around us in the buses, fanning out across the road, a curtain dropping. Their city built entirely into, out of, around, mountains and rivers. They point out and hold dear the red, but no one knows what makes it so. Anything I touch. You gotta let more love in than that, Tauthacho tells me and leads me down the dark, rank cave.

I stay in a small room by the garage. The room on the roof has a guitar on the wall that Wyatt immediately takes down and starts to play. I hastily smear charcoal on paper. I do not know Wyatt well; he is a brief lover, we are both in transit, he is meant to help me live in the here and now. His own circle of atoms knit together, face naked as a petal as he sings. I stab the fabric with a needle, my hands full of scrunched fabric as Wyatt looks openly at me. His body reminds me of those of my older brother and a certain former lover: freckles, stray hairs. The first time I fell in love, I was astounded at how it felt to adore errant moles and other imperfections; it was like an axe in my chest made of honey that hardened with loss.

In the Diva’s house, where by the Diva’s decree I am allowed to wake up and put on whosever clothes are lying about since I need more warm clothes than I brought, there is Isa in ruffled skirts, just back from Switzerland; Maria, outside practicing with her band in the same sweats she has been wearing all week; Johann in one of the woven ponchos from the marketplace, a week away from the end of his year in Bolivia and his return to Belgium; cousin Ale in his Illinois sweatshirt; and the Diva herself in shawls and spectacles, described as a “Diva” of the literary scene and director of a library of important and rare Bolivian literature. No telling who will be home at any time of day aside from lunch; everyone is off to do this, back from doing that. Sometimes I awake in the large, dark, cold morning and pour yogurt with a cloaked Death and piles of books as my only attendants.

Jessica, the young poetess I am dining with, says of Bolivia: I would want people to know not just the stereotype of donkey, poncho, violence, corruption, illiteracy. I would want them to know of the young people who want to seguir adelante

La calle de las brujas, the street of the witches. Always going around curves and after every turn the city looks different. I catch glimpses of myself in the silver bowl ashtray. Jessica, the young poetess I am dining with, says of Bolivia: I would want people to know not just the stereotype of donkey, poncho, violence, corruption, illiteracy. I would want them to know of the young people who want to seguir adelante, kids in El Alto who are doing rap, want to study film. There should be art and fellowships. El Alto is where, in early summer, protests took place against the privatization of the country’s resources, protests and blockades of the indigenous majority ousting Bolivia’s president. Now anyone who reads the New York Times knows El Alto is the trouble slum, but not about kids spitting their poetry, moving hands down with the beat, taking photos with their minds, the only equipment available.

I receive a letter from a friend who says that tea parties with invisible friends are one of her favorite kinds of silence. I know what she means. When I wring my hands at the hard luck that befalls good people, Annie Dillard pauses, pinky lifted, and says simply, “We are moral creatures in an amoral world.” When I am caught between what might have been and what is, George Oppen pipes up while pouring more tea, saying, “There was no ocean liner.” “Only the mist is real,” agrees Octavio Paz, hard at work on his crumpet.

Down to Maria with her shining red guitar, ash somehow on the back of her right shoulder, her messy ponytail and no-nonsense sweats. Isa practices break-dance moves she learned in Europe in the tiny, walled-in yard. I wrestle with thread, cannot see the eye of the needle anymore, shreds of pink fabric in my hands like bunches of blossoms. I tell stories to people who aren’t there. I feed on thin air.

Admiring a huge harvest moon, sharp relief of gold and black, with the taxi driver in whose custody you have placed your body, what is near and far transmutes, shifts in jars and rows. White dust comes in storms. Dogs lick your fingers. You try to be patient with yourself. You will realize there are some things you never did do.

I will look out the dining room window and be stabbed by pain remembered by what I do not see there in the dark, silver branches etched on a blue porcelain bowl, myself ice skating alone although I do not know how to skate. In the Andes it is too thin-aired even to think of ice, or of heavy heat. In a violet room above the crowded plaza, sounds easing through wooden shutters, Wyatt brushes my hair back, gasping, and looks for my eyes as though he might weep or break. Thank you, is the first thing he says, in a whisper, and I am stunned at the profound grace of his bravery, breaking where he could be seen.

On the roof with a jolt you realize how close the clouds are. Admiring a huge harvest moon, sharp relief of gold and black, with the taxi driver in whose custody you have placed your body, what is near and far transmutes, shifts in jars and rows. White dust comes in storms. Dogs lick your fingers. You try to be patient with yourself. You will realize there are some things you never did do.

Morning holds us like bread, and from my vantage point on the trolley this sunny city day, I cannot see exactly how we’re suspended, rocking, across the bridge. I understand now something my mother said on a road trip up the coast of California. We were waving back and forth under colossal redwoods, my hands full of drive-thru chicken fajita, and she said that a car is an interesting thing in which to travel since it’s a vessel that goes through the land instead of over it like a plane, a capsule hurtling through surroundings without really participating in them. On the trolley our bodies are like a bunch of trees, packed tightly, arm branches reaching for the metal bar. We all sway in the wind of the trolley coming to a halt.

In the dark our minibus dips down suddenly and an Elton John song comes on. I turn to Maria and tell her this song is on the first cassette tape I ever bought. I was nine years old, and in Isla Vista with my mother. It was the same day she noticed that my right foot turns out when I walk. We ate Chinese food on benches painted deep red.

Pale moon fingernails in the shower that kept turning cold, green shower curtain cocoon encircling in the corner, barley soup, a picture of Angelina Jolie on Maria’s wall, Maria the drummer and chef, Isa the younger, eighteen years old, just back from a year in Switzerland, in a skirt and jacket, clearly wanting to practice her English and play hostess. Maria produces a carrot pipe. No one who did not grow up on ranches as I did ever understood before why I would suggest an apple when rolling papers were not to be found, and here is an old kitty purring on my lap and an absent Diva. What does my mother do? asks Isa, blowing out smoke. She directs a library, she writes, and she is a radical leftist.

Years ago I served hot chocolate every Wednesday to residents of an elder care home, wandering the halls waiting for a resident to wander the halls looking for someone to talk to. Secretly I loved best taking advantage of a faraway gaze to watch the TV program the occupant wasn’t really watching. Something in me twinged when I thought about the faraway gaze. What it might mean. Where they had gone. Where were they wandering?

A series of images, as it all is. All memories are. Isa stands beside me, describing seasons I can’t imagine.

The mountains, Johann says immediately when I ask what he will miss. It’s so immediate it’s almost like I didn’t ask the question.

Later I notice a slight tear in the skin of my thumb and cannot remember where it came from.

In minutes the weather goes from chilly to baking. This sort of dry, lifted heat reminds me of being smaller, time I spent being warm. Summers in southern California are so damn hot. Afternoons yawn on. Slightly removed, hanging in the heat, objects, even. A series of images, as it all is. All memories are. Isa stands beside me, describing seasons I can’t imagine.

I return to a coffee shop to take a picture of the square-jawed, small-faced woman who heats chocolate cake for me. She gives me the ring I left on the bathroom sink. Las almitas protect her, she says when I mentioned angels, little souls, little souls flying about her sweaty face. On her day off she cleans her daughter’s house; her son-in-law does not work.

I awake to sunlight on heavy tie-dyed blankets. Isa and Johann, back from the market, stop the music every couple of seconds so Johann can write down the lyrics Isa slowly repeats. Maria and I smoke out of her carrot. She leafs through an art history book. The old kitty is one Maria put into her pocket for keeps when she was eight years old. The kitty was scurrying through the market. Johann writes these words down: Nunca fue fácil, como explicarte. Maria tells me Angelina Jolie is amazing — “the voice of the ‘80’s,” is the way she puts it in Spanish, and to say it’s true she says no ve, don’t you see — because she does whatever she wants and people are still in awe of her. Another kitty, this one thirteen years old. Another stretch of lace fabric. I let sun lie. Outside everything is pale mountain. Lace flickers its shadow on my jeans.

The Diva has a white-cloaked death figurine on her shelf. My mother loves death, Isa explains. It’s the one thing we’re all afraid of but it will happen to all of us.

Bridge higher up than you would believe. Many people commit suicide here, Maria tells me. “All those who are tired and carrying heavy loads must give themselves to God” is painted along the edge and maybe it’s just my translation but that seems just the thing to tell me to get me to jump, stains of red in the mountains, here where we are lifted higher than belief, parsed out whitely, they slide over each other; here between towering mountains like turrets I might just fly.

The Diva has a white-cloaked death figurine on her shelf. My mother loves death, Isa explains. It’s the one thing we’re all afraid of but it will happen to all of us. On top of her shelves, which overflow with every kind of book, a headdress from the Beni region, plus all the cats and dogs whose distinct personalities are part of the household. I find a perfect purple pen at the end of the day, near a Rancid album and a copy of Lolita. Walk out into the unbaked unmasked mountains the color of blood mid-soak into the earth, houses of the poor wherever earth is even remotely flat, stuck in crevices.

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.

Six kids! The Diva exclaims at the heavily clothed Doña Clemencia. Doña Clemencia cooks the meals and is the first domestic employee I’ve met in South America who eats with the family at the table. Six kids, repeats the Diva, shaking her head. I’ve gone half crazy with two. The Diva sits at the table with her girls in front of her, having just debated with them about police and dirty hippies smoking pot in front of everyone (it is Maria who can’t stand them, oddly enough), and reads aloud from the Hot Chocolate for the Soul in Spanish book Johann has just given her. Listen to this, she says, and reads aloud: We don’t teach our children that they are unique; we teach them that two plus two is four. What about the fact that there has never been anyone like you in the history of the world? You are a marvel. You could be anything. You could be president or the next Einstein. Shit, says the Diva, look at the emphasis on success and recognition. She goes back to her soup.

The world takes care of you, how many times have you realized that? Leaves and rock don’t pass judgement.

I look at the pale pointed leaves as I consider smoking pot with Maria in the rock room. Wonder if I should. The world takes care of you, how many times have you realized that? Leaves and rock don’t pass judgement. As we get stoned Maria starts talking about the gruesome death of some famous Latina singer, then she and Johann start talking about the possible cadaver at the mouth of the cave. We should open the bag, says Johann. Haven’t you guys seen the movies? I plead. When you find a bag that might contain a dead body in a really dark cave, you don’t want to open it.

Sprinkler water smoothes the tile as the Diva agrees that hers is an enchanted city. The elite, the Diva says, gesturing, moved from this area, now run down, to another farther south. The elite seemed to drift as a dark tinted heat mirage moving the glitter of money across the city leaving cracked buildings behind. The elite lived here once, the Diva says of the calm circle with the closed church. The church is good luck, better luck than the other churches, so on busy days numerous couples come to get married revolving-door-style.

I defer to Maria about the spirits, the mountain’s spirit and that of the possible cadaver we must make our way past to find our way out, about the possibility of angering them. No way, man, Maria says in Spanish, we’re learning about natural processes. We open the bag, look at the body, thank the spirit, then take off.

Suddenly I have a full body memory suit between me and the rocks and darkness and dust. I am brought through it by my own dreams.

Perhaps it is the altitude but looking at the starfish-shaped orange arms of desert flowers and imagining a December awash and bursting with blossoms and wind — as Isa describes the month, and I listen incredulously — she says the word lágrimas. Tears.

I am petrified to go back into the cave. Johann guides my feet to their footholds. Only as she enters the cave to go down does Maria say, Damn, now I’ll get paranoid, it’s dark. On the way down Tautahcho appears, shaking his head at me, but lovingly so. Tautahcho is there in his black hakama. I am remembering how he sat leading Aikido class because Maria and Johann start talking about martial arts. I am grateful they did and thereby nudged the poised domino of Tautahcho in my brain, because the entire way down the excruciatingly dark cave with the possible cadaver at the bottom, the image and sound of him comforts and distracts me from the dark cave and possible cadaver. How we breathed, the exercises we did in our white gis to stretch our backs. Suddenly I have a full body memory suit between me and the rocks and darkness and dust. I am brought through it by my own dreams.

All rich thieves have something to do with the government. Although Isa knows a girl whose parents are wealthy in that way, and the girl is very nice. I can see, says Isa, how if you grow up with a lifestyle and understand that you have to rob to maintain it but it is all you have known, how you might come to live that way.

Do you have a knife, Maria? Johann asks to tease me. They poke the bag. That has to be the belly, Maria says, swollen with death. I don’t look, walk forward. I look back. Johann has succeeded in rupturing the bag. The stench is unbearable. The blood is slow, black, trickling. Bueno, vamos yendo, Maria says. Let’s get going.

Every wise woman I have met, she says, be she rich, poor, young, old, has listened to her intuition. That voice inside or outside.

I ask the Diva for advice about life as she gets us strange crunchy bread. We are standing on a very steep street. There is a green light above the plastic bread box. We hug our jackets around us. Every wise woman I have met, she says, be she rich, poor, young, old, has listened to her intuition. That voice inside or outside.

And when we finally find our way out of the cave the tranquility has a strange… not edge, but backside. A wealthy sort of suburb, yes. But the city hides things. The city scarcely exists.

In an artist’s hangout, a cave-like bar in the historic part of town, the Diva’s picture is on the wall, part of a mural of the artistic greats of La Paz. A couple makes out in the corner. A large table of people laugh and talk in the tavern room. We sit at the bar and sip spiked tea. And do you not like girls? asks the Diva as we labor up the hill in the neighbourhood in which she was born. She is looking for her traditional dance troupe. She is not sure where they are rehearsing. Black people shipped as slaves from Africa, dying of altitude, sent down to the mines. It’s the dance of their children, who mixed with the indigenous inhabitants, the Diva is learning. Not many lights, not many stores open. I say no, I’ve tried to like girls, but I don’t. The Diva knows what I mean. I think it’s a fault that I don’t have a girl in my life, she says.

In any white minibus people get on and off in a constant stream. Some know each other, may even be related, others have nothing to do with one another. In the white minibus of my brain, Wyatt sits alongside Oppen and Paz and a beautiful boy I saw in the plaza today. One by one they leave, replaced by others, sometimes leaving an empty space. I think of an almost empty minibus rocking its last passenger into the night. Maybe that is sleep.

One by one they leave, replaced by others, sometimes leaving an empty space. I think of an almost empty minibus rocking its last passenger into the night. Maybe that is sleep.

But you should see us in La Paz when we are out protesting against the government, the Diva says as we leave the hole in the wall, violencia, policia — princesa, that last word she says at the same time as a young woman with heavy eyeliner sitting on a bench with a rod full of woven bracelets. They chat and the princess offers me a bracelet to buy. We descend a long series of steps and the Diva says she is a wise one, she is. I was upset because a guy hadn’t called me and she gave me a bracelet and said it would be fine. He called right after that.

We come upon the crowded rotary and I show the Diva tokens I wear from people that I believe protect and care for me, but also tell her I realized recently that superstition is a form of self-defeat. Why assume the world is a disastrous place and disastrous things will befall me if I lose a certain earring, that good things only befall me because I don’t? At this the Diva guffaws.

The car doesn’t hit me exactly. The car nudges me. Either the backward downhill give of a car switching gears, or intentional. Ya pasó I say to Maria a block later, but more to myself. As we walk down the gentle slope Maria says, Oh wait I did go to Russia. We took a bus to Saint Petersburg from Finland. How beautiful, the bridges that lifted up to let the boats pass through, how lovely, those boats.

Moments like a corridor but the minute they have been lived, the lengths of corridor shift, disappear, rearrange. The floor under our feet disappears, the walls cave in, the minute we take our next step forward.

What do you think about motherhood? I ask the Diva and she says, Well shit it’s hard, man, it’s not just to care for them as children, it’s their whole life. She talks with her dancing friends and I wait as per her orders at the threshold. Two men pass and keep looking back at me. I signal to the Diva that I am going to get something to eat but she doesn’t see. I get chicken and walk back up and the Diva is walking down and says, I told you to wait! This neighborhood is really dangerous. Shakily lights a cigarette. She asks if I have a novio and I tell her I am tired of young men using their brains to try and avoid heart-work. I ask her if she has one and she says she had one, but she is tired of intellectuals. They are too suburban.

The logical part of the brain would be the money-taker, calling out where the bus is headed, the part of the self that knows its route, its location. Moments like a corridor but the minute they have been lived, the lengths of corridor shift, disappear, rearrange. The floor under our feet disappears, the walls cave in, the minute we take our next step forward. Worms in reverse. We go through somewhat of an ordered survival and leave behind mirrors broken, bobbing up and down, liquid.

Are there any female monkeys in Belgium? asks the Diva, because she is considering becoming one. She is actually considering becoming a female monk in Belgium since Johann is thinking of monkhood, she just confuses the words in English. Everyone hoots. In the end the Diva decides not to live in a monastery since she would have to give up smoking and drinking. Do you smoke? asks the Diva, then looks at my face. Are you suffering? she asks, laughing.

From the minibus the Diva points out gleaming spoons and hanging teapots. After the part of the market that smells acrid after a day of fruit bazaar she tells me that there is the same difference of opinion in Latin America between the inclusive nature of “hybrid” literature and those who believe genre should continue to be entities with enforced, distinct limits. There is also a debate in Latin American literature between the largely socially important literature and more internal literature of a higher level, she says. For example, I prefer Jessica’s poetry because it is more internal and intellectual. Historically the political and social turmoil of this part of the world has led to fables about the common man, social theme, that sort of thing. But I like the higher level of literature because every worker, every mother of eight, every miner has that internal life.

What looked solid isn’t. The steps we take dissolve; footholds turn to dust. Hidden dark places where poets squirreled away. In a city where there are naturally as many ups as downs, and plenty of both, I realize that every time I have told someone or been told of a memory we have been descending, going downhill.

Am I wandering through it now; will I be shaken by a kind younger hand into the late afternoon with a woven blanket over my frail legs? It could cave in on itself, the insubstantial shelf, could bottom out into nothing. Even in Jessica’s upscale suburban house there is a patchamama figurine. Fires for the virgin, dances and mantles. Sit among dogs and fading light. In the building across the way two figures move side to side, lit with late light. What looked solid isn’t. The steps we take dissolve; footholds turn to dust. Hidden dark places where poets squirreled away. In a city where there are naturally as many ups as downs, and plenty of both, I realize that every time I have told someone or been told of a memory we have been descending, going downhill. I can’t explain this city any more than I can explain memory. When buildings fall to shadow, uneven houses on cliffs start, various certain ones, to spark.

Black dog nearly bites me in the thigh, won’t let me pass. Think about the hairs standing up on my body, about adrenaline, about the body language of the dog and me, conveying cowardice, wonder about other humans in other times in other generations, lions maiming them. We’re all riding the wheel in thin sunlight, hanging dreams on the hook of someone just out of reach, working out the kinks of being in worlds with abilities to dream, suffering the sweet pain of texture. In the white minibuses of La Paz, the money-takers call the name of every stop.

Based on the author’s time spent with Vicky Allyon in La Paz, Bolivia, translating her poetry
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