Tea with D’Artagnan: what am I doing?!

And so it is decided: on the 1st November, I will take up my pen. As part of National Novel Writing Month, I will write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. But why, I hear you ask? I thought you didn’t do fiction? Well, I do have a good reason, but it requires a little help.

You see, my friends, I am going to Bolivia in January, and while I’m out there I will be volunteering for a wonderful charity called BiblioWorks. Their aim is to promote literacy and education by setting up and running libraries for isolated communities in rural Southern Bolivia. I think we all agree that’s a pretty cool project! And so I ask one thing: read the novel if you like, let me know what you think, but most of all check out their website and donate if you feel able: as much or as little as you like, every little helps!

As an extra incentive, I’m offering a special prize: the biggest donor will be able to choose a mystery guest from any novel or TV series that they like to appear in the penultimate chapter. Can’t say fairer than that: a novel written to measure! (The closing date will be midnight on the 25th, to give me time to write it!)

Extracts will be available on here, and the full thing will be available, chapter by chapter, on Tea with D’Artagnan.

Gabriel and me

OK, let’s start with a little quiz. Ten famous Gabriels? There’s the angel, known for appearing to a certain woman in Nazareth, and being played by the blonde girl in primary school Nativity plays (I suppose of the predominantly male parts available, an angel is closer to androgynous than a Wise MAN…) Erm… and then…

So, I study Latin American literature. Which Gabriel do I mean? My Gabriel, who hogs a reasonable proportion of my shelf, and whose work I have a tendency to assume everyone has read, because, well, I have. And if I say ‘Cien años’ to you, you should just know what I’m waffling on about. Because if you’ve known me long enough, I’ll have made you read it anyway!

I don’t even know how I came across Gabriel (OK, I’ll be kind, in case you haven’t guessed already, and fill you in: it’s Gabriel García Márquez that I’m waffling on about!). I vaguely remember being recommended one of his books (possibly Love in the Time of Cholera, but we’ll get to that in a minute), and then there was definitely the phase where I read everything I could get my hands on in preparation for my Oxford interviews (to the extent that I can still remember the one with the mayor and the dentist and the one with the sun that gets shot by Rebecca (sorry, getting ahead of myself again!) and the symbolism of the stifling heat and the almond trees. I’d never been to South America, and other than a doomed family holiday to Cuba when I was very young (I knew neither Che Guevara nor Ernest Hemingway, making it rather a cultural failure. I hadn’t even read Our Man in Havana!), Europe was about the limit of my horizons. And so GGM’s world was exciting and amazing and new and nothing like the Musketeers (which I also loved, and still do: that is perhaps my formative French reading experience, and explains why I spent six months traipsing around castles). And I like to think he got me into Oxford, too, so bonus points for him for that.

The thing is, when you read a lot,  people have a tendency to ask what your favourite book is. I don’t know whether they think you have no other facets to your personality (I don’t actually do the real world, you know…) or if in fact they’re expecting some fascinating insight. The problem is (or rather, the problems…) that when you rattle through four or five books a week, you really remember them. And then you analyse them to shreds, which kind of takes the enjoyment out of the whole thing. And you can’t read trashy rubbish because it just annoys you. And there are simply too many to choose from. All of this explains the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look I tend to greet said question with. So although I might mumble ‘something by García Márquez’, really I’d just be hoping that you’d change the subject.

I have never read a García Márquez book that I didn’t like. He has a tendency to be crude, his imagery can be obvious and he’s pretty sexist, but he’s also wonderfully witty and clever and his stories have a way of intertwining, so that characters that appear in one crop up in another, giving you the feeling of being in on an in-joke, which is just the best thing an author can do (in my humble opinion). That Rebecca? She’s in Cien Años too, so you read about her shooting someone and you know that she’s crazy, because you’ve read all about it. I love that GGM doesn’t pander to you either: if you haven’t read his other stuff, you won’t get the reference, and he doesn’t care, and he isn’t going to explain it to you.

Now, I try hard to appear serious with my reading tastes. I once spent a whole essay and a tutorial arguing against the existence of ‘women’s writing’ as a distinct genre. I do NOT like slushy romantic books. But if I had to pick one book, one wonderfully amazingly lovely story, what would it be? Not Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada. Nothing from Los Funerales de Mamá Grande. Not even Cien Años, fantastic as it is. No, it would be Love in the Time of Cholera. 

Why? I don’t know. Because as a love story, it is about as masculine as it can get: girl breaks boy’s heart, marries someone else, so he decides to console himself by seducing every woman he comes across. And then at the end, she realises she was wrong and runs off with him. From a feminist standpoint, it’s just… uuurgh… But somehow you manage to forget that when you’re reading it, and I can only assume that this must be down to how García Márquez writes. For me, one of the most wonderful things about his work is that no-one gets happy endings and nothing turns out perfectly: he’s completely aware that we humans are a messed-up bunch, and that interacting with each other is rarely straightforward. People are forever rambling on about ‘magical realism’, but I don’t really know if that’s actually what’s so enticing about his writing. I prefer to think of it as the tragic stupidity of humanity. Maybe that’s a particularly Latin American thing, maybe not. 

So if you haven’t read Love in the Time…, go and find it and snuggle down in a comfy chair with it. I challenge you not to weep, shout with frustration and laugh out loud, possibly all three at the same time. And then go and read everything else old Gabriel’s ever written too, and despair that you aren’t him, and that you’ll never quite have the words to say it as he does. I promise, it’s the only possible reaction.

Chocolate Chuquiasqeña

5th March 2014, Sucre, Bolivia

I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking. What happened to the cake? What happened to Fridays? Well, I don’t really know. I guess La Paz is a wonderful city for street food (keep your eyes peeled for a future post on the many kinds of pastry you come across being sold from ad-hoc bakeries or little carts on the street) but it just can’t compare to Paris on the cake front. But that doesn’t mean that a ritual should be abandoned (that’s a bit like the ex-Pope saying that Mass doesn’t live up to when he was in the Vatican, so he’s becoming atheist. Well, sort of…) and this little holiday to Sucre was obviously the ideal opportunity to get back on the cake bandwagon. (Possibly the first time that phrase was written in that particular order!)

Now, in some ways, La Paz reminds me of Manchester. (Another sentence first, no doubt!) A bit grimy, rains a lot, lots of hills, in the North… (Don’t know if there’s a paceño Oasis or Smiths, but there really should be!) Maybe that’s why it feels like home? Anyway, where does that leave Sucre? Pretty, yes, sunny, yes, a bit pretentious, full of students… Yep, that’s right, Sucre is Oxford. Even down to having been the capital: old Ox stood in as the base for the Royalists in the Civil War, whilst they named Sucre after the bloke that killed the Spanish monarchists and had it as the capital until they decided that La Paz was a better bet. (Mancunians take note: Parliament could be heading north yet!)

Having established this delightful fact, I did my favourite trick when arriving in a new place: climbed up to get a bird’s eye view! The guidebook led me on a slight dud, to a bit of a dingy church with random tarpaulin over bits of it:

Apparently one of the loveliest church interiors in Sucre

However, all was forgiven once I’d scrambled up the pretty dodgy spiral staircase and clambered out of what was effectively a hole onto the roof. Because Sucre is pretty gorgeous from this height.

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Worth the precarious staircase, no?

So, speaking of views, and excessive exercise, there was then the slog up to the Plaza Anzunes. Now, La Paz has some horrible hills with lovely panoramas at the top, and they still make me stop and smile (and not just from relief at finally making it up there), and so I thought I’d got beyond being impressed. After all, once you’ve seen snowy mountains on your way to pick up your clean undies, you’re a bit harder to please. And then I found this:

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(Sorry it’s getting a bit photo-heavy here, but how else do you describe it, really?)

Anyway… on to lunch: the inevitable ‘vegetarian sandwich’ and the still-not-used-to-it juice-list-tome. As in, you say ‘What juices do you have?’ and prepare for a 3-hour long list of every possible combination you can imagine, most of which flavours are utter mysteries since we don’t have the fruits back home. Settling for a mixture of banana, passion fruit and various other things, I leaned back into a deckchair, dug out my notepad and chilled. Juice, actually pretty good butty (proper roasted veg, big hunk of smoked cheese, toasted, olive, random carrot salad: what more could you want?), and this view (I promise, nearly at the end of the photos! If nothing else, because Bolivian Internet doesn’t appreciate this image overload!):

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And then, finally, sadly, back from the glorious peace, quiet and stillness of this little oasis to the real world of the city of Sucre. (And yes, I know, the ‘real world’ of Sucre is about 10 times more dreamlike than the rest of the known universe, but compared to that quiet little square, coming back down into town was like getting a bus through Cheetham Hill at rush hour.) Fortunately for me, I stumbled across a certain little chocolate shop with three tables and a menu consisting of half a dozen items: hot chocolate (big or little cup), chocolate milkshake, chocolate-dipped fruit kebab, liqueur shots in chocolate cups and Sacher torte. It was a wee bit early in the day for the shots (although it has been a while since I had Amarula and/ or Bailey’s: maybe tomorrow…) and who wants fruit? Why pretend to be healthy in a chocolate emporium?! So I went for the hot chocolate (long) and Sacher torte.

Now, let’s get one thing straight. This was not Sacher torte as Slattery’s of Prestwich do it. On the other hand, I am assured that the Viennese don’t do Sacher torte as Slattery’s do, so we can’t be too picky. And this chocolate concoction could not be accused of being dry. Especially not when served on a plate with yet more chocolate sauce (and inexplicably, some strawberry/ raspberry/ red stuff (not ketchup!): what’s that about?!). Was it authentic? Probably not. Was it tasty? Oh, yes. Especially when accompanied by the rather delicious hot chocolate. The only odd bit was the couple on the next table asking for a guidebook swap (theirs recommended the place, mine didn’t, other than that they were pretty much identical!) and the creeping invasion of my space by a random family. Atmosphere = a little bit surreal. Chocolate = pretty bloody good.

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PS. Apparently, local regulations state that all buildings in central Sucre have to be re-whitewashed every year. Told you they were pretentious!

Ten crazy things about Carnaval: Bolivian style!

In the UK, about the craziest we get in the run-up to Lent is a few pancakes with a bit of lemon, sugar, Nutella or, if you’re my mother, salt (weirdy Lithuanian!). And then we get on with moaning about the sudden appearance of Easter bunnies and cream eggs for about six weeks. But not in Bolivia. Oh, no! Their pre-Lent thing goes on for about four days, and none of this frugal idea of using stuff up: this is a full-on excuse for a party, a load of buying stuff and a lot of messiness. So, here goes…

10. Saturday before Shrove Tuesday is Oruro day. Their parade is that huge (yes, that huge) that it’s been UNESCO recognised (in the category of ‘Stuff-It’s-Really-Hard-To-UNESCO-Recognise, which actually has a fancier and more official sounding name) and goes on all day. So for weeks before you’re bombarded with offers for packages to go there, and for weeks afterwards you’re being told that you really should have been.

9. There’s that much drinking goes on (start early, keep going as long as you can) at said Oruro that no-one who actually went can remember it. That’s why you have lots of slightly out-of-focus photos though, right?

8. The ever-flaky Bolivian timetabling of anything and everything gets about a hundred times worse. Try to buy a bus ticket for Tuesday: ‘Ooh, no, we’re not running then’. Monday? ‘Ooh, no, I’m not sure…’ When will you be sure? ‘Monday?’ Grrrr…

7. Despite the fact that all of the Carnival stuff happens every year, it still has to be televised because, you know, there’s nothing else going on. So as if there weren’t enough people clogging up the streets, hanging around the bus station trying to get to Oruro (diving in front of you because who needs queues?), the TV crews are there, getting in the way by interviewing ticket sales people (erm, excuse me, I’m trying to BUY A TICKET here…) and trying to get shots of us tourists, just to prove how popular it is. (Let’s not rain on their parade by telling them that I was actually after a ticket for next week…)

6. La Paz is also fond of parades. Ones that go down the main street, blocking it off for four days. Attempting to get to the station, I was assured by a variety of people that it was simply impossible. But impossible is nothing: I just had to do a detour so long that I was half expecting to be asked for my passport and find I’d ended up in Brazil.

5. Paceños aren’t big fans of rules of the road at the best of times. Get to Carnaval and they just give in altogether. Walk down the middle of the road? Yeah, fine. Set up a little barbecue in the middle of the road? Why not? Set off firecrackers as buses are driving past. Sure thing!

4. Speaking of those firecrackers… So, they don’t do Pancake Day here, they do Challa. And what is that, I hear you ask? Well, in a wonderfully mixed-up Bolivian way, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, since it’s all about blessing your house/ shop/ car/ pet and asking the Pachamama for a healthy and prosperous time ahead. (Kind of like Alasitas, but without little stuff). There are flower petals, spilling of beer (deliberately: wards off the evil spirits, because you obviously don’t mix your drinks), little charcoal bonfires with a selection of things being burned on them… Balloons are tied to cars, streamers are wrapped around things and people. Loud music (VERY loud music) is played, with the aim being to drown out your neighbour. Dancing on the street ensues. This starts at about 9am…

3. Of course, this means that shops are confusingly closed but with their doors open. Meaning that Monday is a bit of a siege-preparation day, unless you want to live off beer and candied nuts. Or, you know, if you’ve just done a 14 hour bus journey from the other end of the country.

2. But it’s OK, you don’t need food, because you’ll probably end up swallowing a load of foam. And getting covered in water. Water pistols, balloons and cans of shaving foam are sold in vast quantities on every street corner (along with plastic ponchos, but that’s surely defeating the object?) and are put to pretty good use. Dropping from upstairs windows or squirting out of car windows isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. Especially if your target is a tourist. Mother of family joining in too? Of course. And if you run out of foam in your can, just scoop some off your hair and dab it directly on to someone. I suppose it could be worse: so far it’s only been water in the balloons. Or have I just tempted fate?

1. Those firecrackers. Part of the whole blessing ritual, no-one seems to have any objection to letting them off in the most inappropriate of places: covered shopping arcades, offices, the side of the road. And you get worryingly used to being surrounded by what sounds like gunfire (but hopefully isn’t). And flying sparks. Ah, Bolivia, land of health and safety…

Ten weird things that happened in Chile

So, here’s the thing. I am and always have been a little bit scared of random patriotism. I blame my dad, since when we used to watch sports on TV, he’d make me root for the athlete/ team from the country I’d never heard of, and we’d desperately hope that Britain would drop the baton, score an own goal or get half of the team sent off. So, coming to Bolivia with my scepticism of nationalism, how do you expect me to react to the various stories I’m told about how odd the Chileans are? That’s right, polite nodding as a symptom of not-really-buying it. And then I went to Chile, and the following rather odd things happened.

1. I came across not one, not two but THREE toilets (in restaurants/ cafés) positioned so close to the opposite wall that there was basically no space for my knees. I’m getting used to that on public transport, but I couldn’t help but think there might have been a little more space if there hadn’t been a full on shower in the way too…

2. The bus driver on my way to Chile asked for my passport to fill in his funny immigration form. Utterly baffled by the fact that I had only one surname, he decided that the part that says ‘British Citizen’ must be part of my name, and decides I must be called Alison Citizen Walsh. And be Irish. Where he got that from I don’t know. Since no-one mentioned any of this, I conclude that no-one actually reads these forms. Like, ever.

3. I found an amazing but rather surreal meal deal in a café in Arica. Listed as ‘ice cream, cake, juice, coffee and toastie’, I asked if it included all of these things. It did. Oddly, they also came in that precise order. Because ice cream makes a wonderful starter, and a cheese toastie is clearly pudding.

4. Ever get sick of trying to find somewhere to park near the seaside? Tired of lugging picnic hampers, inflatables, towels and deck chairs around? Arica has it covered: just drive onto the beach, practically into the sea if you like, and then unload from there. (Ignoring the signs about the protection of green turtles: you can’t litter, but you can drive over one).

5. For some strange reason, despite the fact that Chile is west of Bolivia, it is an hour ahead (this being because it has daylight saving time, although I think it’s rather futile in the north of the country anyway). Every time I tried to get my head around this, I gave in, realising it made absolutely no sense. And then arriving at the border, we were told it opened at 8am. Bolivian or Chilean time? Neither: we were eventually let through at about 9/10:45… So the timekeeping isn’t any better over there…

6. There was a triathlon going on in Arica (land of dust and blistering heat: sounded a bit like hell). And in an attempt to motivate the competitors to keep moving on their laps around the deathly dull road-based course, they had chosen to blast some music out. Who had they decided would be great motivation? U2. Yep, what you really want chasing you round is the wailing sound of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Perhaps it’s meant to make you run faster, in a desperate attempt to escape Bono?

7. So, turns out this Bolivian-Chilean animosity isn’t one-sided. In taking a tour around a replica of a sunken Peruvian ship, a general question was raised as to where everyone was from. In the midst of the general chorus of ‘Santiago’, I pipe up ‘Except me, of course,’ to which the reply is, ‘No, bet you’re from Bolivia’. And on it went. Every time mention of the B-word was made, it was to angry accusations that the war was all their fault. And the land was Bolivian first, it was just given to their made-up country because they needed a bit of a hand. Etc, etc, etc.

8. There are railways in Chile (unlike in Bolivia). And they cross roads, utterly at random. Without any kind of signals, barriers or anything. So the bus driver just has to slow down and peer over his shoulder to see if there’s any large metal objects hurtling along at high speed on the rails. And there isn’t, so he carries on. Thoughts of Fried Green Tomatoes come to mind. Or possibly Stand By Me? My film knowledge is dodgy. But you get the idea…

9. Public toilets appear to have a new feature. A price reduction for OAPs and the disabled. But not children, obviously, because they’re by far the best market for this kind of facility. I’m just surprised they’re not charged double.

10. Going for breakfast one morning, I request a croissant. Not available. Raspberry pastry. Not available. There is this ‘paila’ thing mentioned, the same price as a slice of sad, limp white bread and jam. So I order it. Turns out to be a little frying pan of scrambled eggs with cheese and an ENORMOUS square stottie cake. (For those who’ve never been to Newcastle, just think of a really big bread roll). Like, plate-sized. Bigger than the pan of scrambled eggs. For about £1.50. (The coffee was a bit dodgy, since it was a sachet of instant and a mug of hot water: mix it yourself style! But really, was I in a position to be fussy?)

So, that’s Chile for you! And now I’m safely back in the normality of Bolivia. Oh, wait a second…

Ten things you notice at the supermarket in La Paz

This may not sound like the most promising of blog topics. But trust me, everything over here is a little bit crazy, and so going to buy some food can become a bit of an adventure. Especially when you go with certain ingredients in mind…

10. As soon as you walk in the door (or possibly even before), your bag will be confiscated. No matter how large or small, it is deemed likely that you will use it as an accessory to the theft of something very expensive (probably cheese), and so it will be taken from you and placed in a locker, for which you may or may not be given a piece of card with the number on. Variant 1: your bag is too big (eg. your bag is slightly larger than a small handbag), and so it will just be placed behind the cashier. Very secure, obviously. Variant 2: you answer in the affirmative when asked if said bag contains a laptop. And so you can keep it. Because owning a laptop and being a shoplifter are obviously mutually exclusive…

9. There will be no baskets to be found anywhere. Short of crawling under the till to retrieve one from there, or whipping one from behind another shopper’s back and dumping their shopping or adopting it as your own. They must be hidden somewhere, since other people acquire them, but they are clearly not for the use of foreigners…

8. In a desperate attempt to fit as many products in as small a space as possible, the aisles will be incredibly narrow. As in, turn around too quickly and you’ll knock something off the shelves on either side, probably something highly breakable, just to cause as much of a mess as possible. And if anyone wants to pass, they’ll either have to crawl between your legs or leapfrog over you.

7. Utterly disconcertingly, everyone handling food in any way in the shop will be wearing the kind of face mask beloved of surgeons and anyone remotely near an epidemic of some nasty disease. Not only does this mean that buying something from the deli counter goes something along these lines:
Customer: Can I have 100g of that cheese please?
Server: Nmmm nnnnmmmm nmmmnmmnn.
Customer: I’m sorry, what was that?
Server: Nmmmmmmmm nnnnnnnnnmmmmmmm nnmmmmmnnnmmmmmmmmmmmm.
Customer: Erm… yes?
Server picks up scarily grizzly-looking hammy thing and heads for slicing machine.
Customer: Nooooooooooo! Cheese! Cheese! That cheese! Please, not that! Anything but that! The CHEEEEEESEEE!
Customer runs away in fright, and ends up buying pre-packed cheese off the shelf.
But also raises worrying questions about exactly what they think is floating around. Does the server have some deadly disease that they’re trying not to breathe on your chicken? Do the sausages have something deadly that they don’t want to inhale? Or is it just like the shoeshiners who hide their faces: chopping ham for a living not being a very glamorous job and all?

6. Everything will be packaged to within an inch of its life. Want one carrot? NO! You can’t have it! You’ll have to buy a bag of about twenty. Aubergine? Only available in pairs. And if you do manage to find something loose, it will be hurriedly snatched from you for weighing. And then put in a bag. Even if it’s a single head of garlic.

5. You head to pick up bread. You notice that there is an enormous roll, twice the size of its fellows. Yippee, you think, this is my lucky day. And then you realise that bread is sold by weight, and so you aren’t in fact getting extra dough for your money. (Note: this is not the case in normal bakeries, where things are sold as units, as you would expect). And woe betide you if you try to buy a baguette, because it just won’t fit in any bag. And when two are stuck together, one always falls off. To cut a long story short, by the time you get home, it’s in two pieces, or folded over at an odd angle.

4. Everyone pays cash for everything. Obviously. Attempts to pay with a card are met with utter bafflement, possibly the fishing out of a dog-eared sheet of instructions and almost certainly the application of a policy that makes absolutely no sense (writing down your driving licence number, anyone?).

3. Should something not have a barcode, expect to wait for a good half an hour as somebody gets lost in the whole massive space that is this tiny supermarket, trying to find another of the same kind of bread rolls. Giving up and doing without them will not be accepted as an option.

2. Coherence in the layout of products is not to be expected. Why would tea be anywhere near coffee? Flour clearly belongs with rice, but neither of them are anywhere near pasta. Crisps, wine and tomato pasta sauce all obviously belong together. Cream cakes balance on top of the freezer cabinets. Orange juice is stacked up in front of the vegetables.

1. As with anything else in Bolivia, the answer when you don’t know something is just to make it up. Are there any avocados? No. So what are they? Erm… Where are the tin openers? To your left. Oh, no, what’s that over on the right? In the end, it may be safer not to ask at all…

 

Bob Dylan and me

I spent most of my youth protesting my hatred of Bob Dylan. Partly because, when I was young and fond of the kind of hyper-airbrushed, synthesised, poppy harmonies and energetic dancing of various manufactured bands, the Bobster’s nasally voice, irritating habit of making very long songs and the complete oddity of an organ thing every time he paused for breath. And then, of course, because you get older and automatically hate everything your dad likes, or at least claim to.

And then, somehow, I gave in on being cool and started listening to what Bob had to say. Now, let’s get one thing straight right here and now: Bob Dylan cannot sing. He cannot hold a tune on his own, and as soon as you put him in a duet with anyone else, their voice immediately shows his up for how weak it is. This cannot and should not be denied. Even his biggest fans would never, surely, say that what attracted them to his music was his voice. Because it just can’t have been: that would be a lie. Nor is he particularly a style icon, and whilst he may have had an electrifying stage presence, that isn’t exactly what comes across in footage or images from the early days. And as for the whole electric guitar thing, that’s just a bit odd…

No, the reason I, the reason anyone, listens to Bob Dylan, is for his lyrics. Talking about song lyrics as poetry is a cliché, and yet if you read some of his lines out of context, that’s probably what you’d think they were. It is the words that matter, and that’s why his voice doesn’t. And why anyone else singing his stuff (and since just about everyone seems to have done Bob Dylan covers, that happens quite a lot) just doesn’t quite seem right. It doesn’t seem to fit the sentiment somehow, trying too hard with the harmonies and accompaniment, speeding it up or making the choruses catchy. He isn’t catchy. He is indignant but without being angrily self-righteously preachy: these are the kind of lyrics that make you think, rather than choke on their earnest message. When you hear a Bob Dylan song, you know it’s him. And that, I suppose, is when you realise just what a cultural icon is.

What they miss out in history at school

This year is 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. You probably didn’t need me to tell you that, since we’re not exactly allowed to forget. This war and it’s sequel, 25 years later, seem to have been stuck on the history curriculum ever since, as a reminder of how justified British involvement was (and trust me, I’ve not missed the fact that Churchill who ‘won’ the war is now considered the great hero, whilst Chamberlain who tried to avoid it was both foolishly mistaken and a bit of a coward). Fine. Here isn’t the place to go into a kind of sceptical pacifism, I realise that.

But here, not just on the other side of the Atlantic, but down in the southern hemisphere of it, I am coming to realise that there is an awful lot of history, of modern history and politics, that we just don’t know about. We look at the map of South America, all neatly divided into funny shapes, and we don’t really question it. In fact, we’re lucky if we can point out ‘which one’s which’, other than possibly Brazil, which is ‘the big one on the right hand side’.

And yet, of course, over here, things like borders and territory matter, and not just for the kind of odd patriotism that keeps Britain hanging onto the Malvinas (whoops, let’s not go there either!). Squashed onto the bus today, I noticed that the woman next to me in the Ministry of Defence jacket (incidentally, I can’t imagine anyone British who worked at the Ministry of Defence crushing onto an overcrowded, overheated, very slow, very old public bus (fare: 9p)) had a little slogan above the Bolivian flag crest: “The sea belongs to Bolivia.” A quick look at most modern atlases would tell you that wasn’t really true: Bolivian is one of America’s two landlocked countries. The map on the wall here, however, with its neatly defined regions, includes one more: “el litoral”. Despite the fact that this region was claimed by Chile in a peace treaty ratified in 1904 (yes, ten years before the first of the wars that we really bother to remember or think mattered), there’s an optimistic hope in Bolivia that one day it’ll come back, and a fiercely proud belief that the border is wrong, and that this corridor to the Pacific Ocean, and all that implies, is really, truly, Bolivian.

And then, as Europe recovered from the destruction of killing and maiming millions of men and destroying its land, leaving borderlands so shattered that no-one in their right minds would want them anyway, and prepared to do it all over again, Bolivia prepared to fight another neighbour. Not for ideology, or revenge, or suspicion, or xenophobia. No, if the War of the Pacific was over saltpeter, this one, the Guerra del Chaco, was all about oil.

A familiar story, a story that has played out again and again, and without getting too political (again!), it should be pretty obvious that it wasn’t the governments of the countries themselves that were really bothered about this maybe-possible-one day source of potential wealth for their countries. It was, unsurprisingly, two giants of the petroleum industry who were really disputing the territory. And yet as Standard Oil and Shell fought for the right to drill the black stuff, it was Bolivian and Paraguayan soldiers who died.

There were, of course, other issues at stake, other reasons that the two poorest countries, the only two landlocked countries on the continent decided to turn on one another. There was history, there was geography, there was politics. But as reasons why so many people had to die in such sordid conditions, they’re pretty weak, really. Is there ever a good reason for war? I don’t know, I haven’t found one yet. But the world is so full of greed and avarice and misguided patriotism that we have more than our fair share of bad ones.

Alasitas, artesanías and api

As anyone who’s ever met me or read anything on this blog probably knows, I love markets. Any kind of markets: food, craft, Christmas… And La Paz, with it’s streets behind the plaza San Francisco full of stalls selling alpaca jumpers, alpaca gloves, alpaca hats, small fluffy alpacas (seeing a theme here?) etc is amazing for the kind of aimless browsing (and attempting to avoid over-zealous saleswomen determined to dig out all of their many designs of poncho in order to persuade you that you really want one, really you do, for a special price…). But there’s only so much alpaca one girl can take, and only so many looking at what, if we’re honest, are pretty much variations on a very similar theme, all along one interminably long street.

And then I found Alasitas. A quick overview for those not familiar with this bizarrely Bolivian tradition: the 24th of January is the festival of Alasitas, which is a kind of celebration of prosperity and abundance. The idea is basically that you buy loads of miniature things that you want for the next year (think houses, cars, money, but also building materials, tins and bags of food… and just about anything else you can think of!), take it to be purified by having incense-smelling smoke waved over it and then give it to someone as a gift. So far, so… Bolivian. But then I found the fair where they sell the stuff.

From above (since it’s in the bottom of the valley running through the centre of town, you inevitably arrive from above), it just looks like a sea of tents and corrugated roofs. From inside, it isn’t a lot more straightforward to navigate through. There are stalls and stalls selling little things (standard packs of mini money, panpipes, square of material, few pots and pans and a little car), and then a vague division into sections: jewellery, tattoos, hair braiding, food, artsy things, rows of table football tables, flower arrangements etc. All on varying inclines, balancing on steep steps, toppling into the abyss…

Of course, there is no change. There is never change. Changing a 100Bs note (the denomination the cash machine gives them out in) becomes a mission roughly equal to negotiating world peace or finding a cure for malaria. Stallholders rush to find their friends and beg for change, change in any form. 2Bs coins are completely acceptable. I had this with the mini Beetle, I had it with the wheelbarrow (complete with spade and pick), I had it with the bell shaped like a cheery little cholita and baby. And somehow I still ended up without change for the bus home…

I knew twelve months ago that I was coming to Bolivia, and it was shortly afterwards that we found ‘the Bolivian shop’ in York. It is full of gorgeous crafty things, all little figures and jumpers and gloves and bags. I could buy just about everything. Except it’s all really expensive. So I held out for real Bolivia. In a way this was a good move: everything here is about a tenth of the price. In a way it’s dangerous: I have just a few weeks to stock up on the things I’ve been after for months. I don’t know if my luggage will all make it home.

But anyway… the other amazing section of the market is the ‘api corner’. Api is the drink I’ve been dying to try since I got here, and nowhere ever seems to sell it. Until now. A whole row of stalls was offering this hot, thick, purple liquid, made from brewing ground purple corn with water, sugar and cinnamon. It’s a kind of traditional breakfast drink in the Andes, and you can see why: a tankard of this (OK, not exactly a tankard, but it was served in a glass with a mug-type handle) would be enough to entice anyone out of bed on a freezing cold winter morning. Especially when served, as I had it, with a big, puffy, deep-fried empanada with cheese in it. Bolivia may not be known for it’s haute cuisine but this kind of hearty thing is perfect for warming the cockles of your heart, wherever they might be… Now I just need to find somewhere else that sells it, preferably without the accompaniment of wrestling on a widescreen TV.

PS. I’ve also had a chocolate brownie this week, but that’s not very exciting/ exotic/ Bolivian, is it?

 

Simón Bolívar and…

…well, it’s not really about me, is it?

But you see, ever since I got interested, really interested, in Spanish, it was Latin America that fascinated me. I’m not really sure why: I don’t think it was just an exotic thing (over the Atlantic being more exciting than across the Channel and down a bit), because I was never as into Québec or the French DOMTOMs… But anyway, I read fiction and history and biographies and fictionalised historical biographies, and there was someone who kept cropping up. A certain Simón Bolívar.

Go to any Latin American country, and you’ll probably find a statue of El Libertador himself, on a horse, pointing into the distance in a determined sort of way. Streets and squares and museums are named after him, there’s an orchestra in Venezuela (he was born in Caracas) and, of course, there’s Bolivia. And yet, oddly, he kind of succeeded and sort of failed. Which sounds a bit harsh, really, for a guy famous for essentially freeing a reasonable hunk of a continent from its’ cross-Atlantic oppressors.

You see, the other time when you tend to hear about Simón is in the context of Hugo Chávez and the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in Venezuela. Slightly odd, perhaps, to associate a government and a president whose slogan was “Fatherland, socialism or death” with a man who was, when it comes down to it, part of the landowning elite.

Not that this is a criticism of Chávez or Latin American socialism, either, because if I leaned any more left I’d be falling over (I personally blame being taken to Cuba at the tender age of five, when everyone else got Disneyland Florida)… But whenever I read about Bolívar or any other project to unite Latin America under the vague theory of being ‘stronger together’, is that it’s a continent that is constantly tearing itself apart.

Everyone knows that the boundaries between countries in Africa are largely fabricated: lines drawn ruler-straight on a map, with no thought for how they might bisect tribes, villages or communities. Yet to a certain extent, the divisions in Latin America are pretty odd too: strange cases like the island that is half-Haiti, half-Dominican Republic, the US invention that is Panama, the odd lurking Guyane, Surinam and French Guyana. Chile, a country so thin that it’s somewhat preposterous. Bolivia, a landlocked state, in mourning for its coast. Its populations are divided between wildly different environments and ways of life: the most common, perhaps, is the Colombian costeños and cachacos, but the same could be said throughout the continent: an Andean peasant in Peru has far more in common with his Bolivian neighbour and counterpart than with his ‘countryman’ in Lima.

But how do you draw boundaries? It’s not a question of language (except for in the case of Brazil and the odd situation of the three little north-eastern states, because that comes down to colonialism, bartering of territories and people and the imposition of a foreign language, culture and identity), for that both unites and divides: the continent is both swathed in a sea of Spanish and fractured into hundreds of patches of indigenous languages. Nor can history really come into consideration, since before the Spanish arrived and created their provinces, there were the invasions of the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans to oppress the indigenous people. Government, in any form, in Latin America seems always to have meant war and conquest.

And Simón? Simón wanted a greater Latin America, and yet even the force of his personality couldn’t hold what was then Gran Colombia (roughly made up of modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, northern Peru, western Guyana and north west Brazil) together. Perhaps it is unsurprising, since it always seems somewhat of a fluke that the USA clung together (and, of course, nearly didn’t), and the odds of a southern equivalent, born out of different circumstances and subjected to very different kinds of pressure, must surely have been low. Yet one wonders if there was really any need for so much destruction: the years since independence have seen countless wars, boundary changes, disputes (some still ongoing, in a legal sense, in various international courts), civil wars, revolutions, coups, assassinations, uprisings… You name it, Latin America’s seen it.

It is a land of extremes, and becoming ever more so. The differences that divide Brazil and Nicaragua, Mexico and Chile, are and will always be, enormous. And yet, strangely, these countries are also intimately tied to one another, in so many ways. Take Che Guevara: born in Argentina, guerrilla leader in the Cuban Revolution, killed in Bolivia (where a statue of him proudly stands in the bustling centre of El Alto). The photographs of the ‘Boom’ novelists of the 1960′s, all gathered together: Julio Cortázar (Argentinian), Carlos Fuentes (Mexican), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombian), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian). And think of the depths of the Amazon rainforest, where crossing a river might mean crossing into another country, but no-one could ever really know, or the line drawn down the middle of Lake Titicaca, that fishermen have been crossing for centuries in search of trout, or the Argentinian peninsula at the southernmost tip of what feels like the world, cut off from the rest of the country by Chile and the ocean.

So when I see a photograph of Evo Morales, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, I cannot help but think both of the enormous differences between their countries and their people, but yet I cannot despair of what their combined socialism might mean (and yes, I know that Chávez is dead and Castro retired, but that isn’t to say that they have ceased to have an impact over the direction that their countries will take). It seems a shame, it is a shame, that what could have been a tremendously powerful united force should have disintegrated into petty squabbles. Is it too late to repair, to go back to a Bolivarian ideal? I don’t know. I fear that too much has passed, and that the same kind of narrow parochialism that we see (and, sadly, whose destructive power we have seen) in Europe, in the middle East, is embedded in Latin American thinking too. If Bolívar couldn’t hold the provinces together, what hope do trade organisations have?

History has not been kind to Latin America. It lives with the burden of its past: the plunder of its wealth, the massacre of its people, the wars, the discrimination. It hobbles along uneasily with a neighbour to whom it has always given and from whom it has never received (and no, I don’t count killing off leaders, democratically elected or popularly supported, as rendering any kind of service). And as it tries to pull itself up into modernity, with petroleum and lithium and the Olympic Games, it tries also to cling to what it thinks and knows and hopes and wishes it ought to be. I don’t know what Simón Bolívar wanted for his continent, and time has fractured it too much to imagine how it could ever have just one, united, destiny. But whatever this continent is and whatever it will become, it is not and never has been Spain, not at heart, and for that, I understand entirely why it is he, on his horse, that follows me wherever I go.

Ten things in La Paz… you notice when out running

I am a runner. My Oxford life is neatly divided up into sessions, circuit training, long runs and team coffee/ gossip meetings. In Paris, I lugged a change of clothes and trainers on a 20km round cycle trip three times a week. Until today, I had not yet run in La Paz. There were many reasons: the fact that I have to stop for a breather after climbing up onto my bed, the fact that it is impossible to walk for five minutes without encountering an enormous hill, the way everybody stares at you for being non-Bolivian and nobody (repeat, nobody) ever wears less than trousers or a floor-length skirt.

And then I found out about the half-marathon on my last day here. Since the last one (Fleetwood 2012: three miles of sea wind in the face and a PB) I said that I’d take a break, and do one that was more of a challenge than time-chasing. And with this altitude, a challenge is exactly what it would be. The only problem? I actually need to do some running. So today, I started! And it was a bit of an experience…

10. The pavements here are not flat. Not as in sloping, as in full of potholes, loose rocks, unsurfaced bits, access slopes, steps, holes for planted trees… You name it, it’s there. And I nearly fell in it. (I didn’t actually end up flat on my face at any point, which was a minor miracle given my general clumsiness!)

9. Taxis have so little faith in the ability and/or sticking power of any runner that they see (well, me at least) that they think it is acceptable to hover alongside offering excellent prices to a variety of destinations. I’m not running to somewhere, I’m just running!

8. Those little street vending stands are really annoying for pavement clogging, especially when they have customers and/or associated small children blocking the way.

7. Stepping into the road is not a good idea. A car will appear from nowhere, without indicating, on the wrong side of the road, travelling ludicrously quickly. And I’m not really up for their kind of game of chicken…

6. Even in the blistering (OK, not quite blistering, but it is pretty warm) midday heat, everyone wears multiple jumpers, layers of skirt, suits, scarves, coats… The effect? Going out in shorts and t-shirt is roughly equivalent to being naked, and it feels like it.

5. La Paz has the world’s laziest stray dogs. Runners hate dogs off leads, since they have the rather irritating habit of assuming that you’re running because you want to play, and start chasing after you and yapping and jumping and trying to trip you up. Except here, where they vaguely glance up from where they’re sunning themselves, look bored, establish you have no food and go back to sleep.

4. Nobody will move out of the way on the pavement for anyone, even if you’re going much faster, the pavement is quite wide and their entire family/ collection of skirts is clogging it. Perhaps this is a deliberate plot and groups of strangers gang up just to be annoying. Perhaps I’m just paranoid.

3. You will, at this time when you’ve gone out with just your keys, see a myriad of things worth photographing, ranging from the amazing moon-landscapey thing at the end of the road to the group of a good dozen cholita women in traditional skirts, hats, shawls and brightly coloured bundles.

2. Going out at lunchtime is a bad idea. Not necessarily because the smell of the roadside food stalls is particularly appetising (or otherwise), but because they create queues down the really steep hill you’re struggling up (a nice audience to stare at your pain, uncomprehendingly) and are so busy trying not to spill the enormous dollop of chilli sauce they’ve just loaded onto their salteña that they are liable to crash straight into you.

1. Did I mention the hills? Yes, them. They’re pretty brutal. And you really shouldn’t set off downhill first. Or go ‘exploring’ down a hill and then realise it’s a dead end and that to go home you’ll have to turn around and go all the way back up again. I know I should know that by now but… well, I think you can guess…