‘I hate sitting backwards on trains’, or, what happens when you muse about politics in a cable car

I hate sitting backwards on trains. I also hate going back to places. There’s probably a link there, no?

Essentially I’m terrible at goodbyes, don’t like nostalgia and have this idea that once you have good memories of a place you should keep them and move on. And in complete contradiction to all of that, and in spite of my better judgement, I’m back in La Paz, a city where I spent two months two years ago. I write this from the ivory tower of my 22nd floor room, from which I watch workmen clambering on roofs every day, and my mind wanders away from the narrow boundaries of my research to reflections on what has changed and what is to come in this city and this country that defies both my neat analytical framework and the romantic literary musings that linger as a hangover from my undergraduate days. La Paz is neither a control case nor the subject of a novel.

‘It hasn’t changed,’ is my instinctive response when people ask how being back feels. Stupid really: of course the geography hasn’t fundamentally shifted – streets are still exactly where they were – and in essence it’s the same city. It’s at a crazy altitude, built on the rocky slopes of some weird lunar landscape. The streets are noisy and dusty and crowded, buses swerve across the street at random to scoop up passengers to travel routes the driver seems to make up as he goes along, the banks are guarded by men with shotguns and the pavements are filled with women selling everything from chocolate and cigarettes, fruit and bread, to chargers, USB sticks, phone top-ups and screen protectors. Oh, and there’s more stray dogs than you would have thought actually possible.

But of course it has changed. Or I’ve changed. Or I see things here now that I didn’t notice before. The most striking infrastructural change in some ways is the arrival of the Teleférico, a cable car public transport system (mad as it sounds, it makes perfect sense: the roads are overcrowded, there just isn’t space for any kind of street-level system (aside: I’ve now been to two Latin American cities (Quito and Bogotá) with a kind of express bus lane down the middle of the road, segregated from the rest of the traffic. Infrastructural investment: minimal. Effect: pretty impressive. In contrast, my beloved home city (only a trace of irony there) has effectively been at a standstill for what, a year? Two years? More? as millions of pounds are spent on digging up roads for a new tramway. Considering the main problem with the Manchester trams is that they have to crawl incredibly slowly through the city centre to avoid killing the gormless people who wander across the line, I think Latin America might have won this round… Traffic here stops for no man, woman or ambling tourist. But I digress.) and no-one in their right minds would try to dig an underground system on these hills. So cable car it was, and is.

Last time I was here, construction was in full swing, with the first line scheduled to open shortly after I left. There were still a lot of questions: who would take over operations when the Austrian constructors finished their role? How would maintenance costs be balanced with making it an affordable option in a city where a bus ride costs a maximum of 25p? Would anyone actually use it? I was sceptical of plans for WiFi, Oyster-type card payments, bike hubs and integration with the existing transport system: the chaotic, crowded, noisy experience of La Paz public transport seemed at odds with the PR spiel of a transport system that seemed too futuristic even for my own ‘developed’ country (see the London cable car link for what I basically envisioned: an expensive project without any real practical application). In short, I think my main stumbling block was the inability to envisage a little paceña lady in shawl and multi-layered skirts, bowler hat perched on her head, sack of potatoes strapped to her back, knitting in hand, calmly hopping onto a cable car and whizzing over the city.

I don’t have answers to most of my questions. A ticket is 3Bs (~30p): whether the volume of passengers is enough to even partially cover costs, or whether the entire thing depends on a massive government subsidy, I couldn’t tell you. The queue for one-way tickets was startlingly long at one station, the Oyster-type top-up machines unused – but then this was a Saturday lunchtime, and we’ve all seen (been) the lost tourist-types on the London underground, hunting through our bags and pockets for that ticket we definitely bought. I did flag down a minibus with astonishing ease when I left the cable car station, but then it was the main road, plied by dozens (or more) of said buses, who are constantly on the lookout for new passengers: how much design would be necessary for that to work, how much is top-down and how much bottom-up initiative, is a moot point. Everyone in one car I travelled in was on their phone (the tapping of keys at full volume breaking the slightly awed silence (even the teenage boys spoke in quiet whispers) – coming from a university culture where everyone is always on their phone but it’s always on silent, the range of beeps and swishes and electronicky noises that accompany every touch of a key is disconcerting. But then everything in La Paz (everything, apparently, but a Teleférico trip) happens at full volume: the soundtrack to my day is car horns, beeped as much for a reminder of the driver’s own existence (if a bus drives past and doesn’t make a sound, is it really there?) as for any highway code-related purpose.), but mobile internet is one of the changes I have spotted in the city, so that’s not really a surprise. And yes, the cable car is used. Mostly, it seemed from my much-less-than-scientific glance at the queue, by men and young families: one beskirted woman did prove me wrong, in part, by piling into one car with husband and son and then whipping out her bright pink knitting, calmly purling away as I clung to my seat on the dippy bits (I’m terrified of heights. Significantly more so than anyone else using this mode of transport.).

But I suppose where I’m going with this is that I don’t know it has profoundly changed the infrastructure of the city in the ways you might expect. The rest of the public transport system bumbles on, careering round corners and beeping its horns through rush hour traffic and empty nighttime roads. The cable car links top and bottom (social bottom and top) of this mountainside city, but has had little to no impact on the horizontal axis. The stations – bright, incongruously modern buildings (the three lines — red, yellow, and green, the colours of the Bolivian flag – identifiable by bright panelling of blocks of slightly different shades of the relevant colour), staffed by a small army of cheerful attendants in turquoise gilets and tiny security officers (mostly young women under five foot tall), accessed by gleaming pale stone steps bordered by grass verges and little rows of plants – are all located in slightly out-of-the-way places, and completely overpower their surroundings: you emerge from your space capsule blinking into the sunlight, noise and dust of La Paz, and the shock is oddly jarring.

I feel weirdly ambivalent about the whole thing (and not just because of the height and the cable-car-wobble and the being in a glass-sided pod you can’t escape and that forces you to look down – which I hate as much as, if not more than, looking back). In some ways I wanted it to be perfect: wanted it to be proof that this city can do modernity too, that my scepticism was ill-founded, based on the notions of linear development that I hate. And in itself, it is an island of that kind of obvious, European modernity: it feels transplanted out of a shiny ski resort (it was designed and built by Austrians after all). But I also wonder if it proves that La Paz, and Bolivia, and South America, and the world, do not obey that teleological concept of development. I found the buses quaint in 2014. Now I cannot help but notice their wonderful pragmatism, lacking in my own culture that clings obsessively to timetables and rules and in doing so fails to actually be practical. (And La Paz has introduced ‘normal’ buses with set routes that stop at stops. I can’t get my head round them. I’m happier with human free will and unpredictability.) Every city has its foibles, and La Paz will never be (can never be, should never want to be) London, New York, or Paris. I wonder how it took a massive project that was, at least in part, an attempt to symbolise the country’s modernity, progress, and development, to demonstrate that this city is, as it is, just as much a part of the 21st century as anywhere else.

One final thought (because this has been very long). I was about to write ‘this city functions perfectly well’ just there, and then remembered what perhaps struck me the most about the up-down trip I took on this cable car. Leaving Zona Sur – the bottom, the bit at lower altitude, the bit where the streets are arranged in a numbered grid pattern and the shops are US-ised and it doesn’t quite feel like Bolivia any more – you pass over a set of houses that wouldn’t look amiss in the affluent suburbs of just about anywhere, all grass and swimming pools, trampolines and conservatories, pedigree dogs, wrought-iron fences, private roads, security guards and electric gates. And the little boy sat opposite me tugged on his father’s arm and said ‘Daddy, why are all the houses nice down here?’. I write this just over a week after the revelation of the depth of divisions that exist in my own society (a topic that even here I am constantly asked about), and I’m not sure I’m best placed to criticise any society for its social stratification and inequality. But I’m battling with the symbolism of a mode of transport that flies over the homes of rich and poor alike, allowing everyone to stare at the grassy lawns and gazebos as well as the washing lines on roofs and dirty yards filled with piles of construction material. I want it to be a message of equality, but I cannot help but think that all the revolutions of history, Brexit included, come from those at the bottom seeing what those at the top have, and what they are barred (by custom and law and lack of opportunity and everything else) from having, and rejecting that privilege in whatever (self-)destructive means they can.

And I don’t want to end on a negative note so I will add only, by way of hollow consolation, that if you’re going to reflect on the inevitable failure of socialism, the cable car ride was quite a pretty way to do so.

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