Tuesday, 26 February 2013

All's Not So Quiet in the Capital

It would make for a good pub quiz question. ‘What is the constitutional capital of Bolivia?’ …‘La Paz?’… ‘Sorry: nil points’. It’s Sucre. Nuestra Señora de la Paz is the administrative capital. A semantic distinction. Just like the full city title is the ultimate misnomer. Our Lady of the Peace. It’s decidedly not a quiet, peaceful place. From the ’colectivo’ whippers-in, to the cry of ’para agua’ as the storm breaks, from the hooting horns on the junctions to the drum beat of the Aymara procession, from the 4am gringos to the un-miked tourist touts.

For the ’colectivo’, a double parallel parking would amount to tidiness, better to block a two lane highway with three and a half pulled up vehicles all attempting to plunder off the same queue. An abandonment, a melée of micro-buses. Out of which pours, what to my unaccustomed ear, sounds like crack fire poetry, each stanza ending on a rising inflection and an ‘a’. It’s musical, rhythmic, and were it not for the manic mayhem, near soporific. Only occasionally do I catch the destination and the fare. This time it was ‘San Francisco’, but as all these transports pass along the Prada, and stop at the Cathedral, this wasn’t a great achievement in  comprehension.

We’ve headed out from our ’grace and favour’ colonial courtyarded hostel. It was once President Panda’s residence, (presiding:1904-1904). When the first thunder storm of the day strikes, a near miraculous transformation occurs; a panoply of blue polythene materialises, a torrent of plastic sheeting, cascading down the slippy, pothole flooded, cobbled calle. All the traders' stalls that have been trading in the accumulation of China’s ’Rio del Plastico’, now start crying: ‘para agua, ponchero’, offering umbrellas and ponchos.  Gamps and pac-a-macs appear as if by magic. All looks disposable. One blast inverts and crushes the brittle ribs of plastic, one blast marks out the already obvious gringos. Andeans, when it gets damp, will put a polybag over their felted bowlers and blanket around their shoulders.

Thanks to ¡Unboliviable! - we'd left our camera behind!
Our perambulations lead us up to the plaza, drawn by a thing with a snake’s head and giant wings. A man in a costume. More and different dresses are sheltering in the alcoves of the square and in the porticos of the cathedral and the parliament. A brass band is warming up. Something is going to happen. Coincidentally, the potential performers are sheltering under the balcony from which Evo, decked in the national tricolour and the checks of the Aymara flag, has hectored his farther northern neighbour on more than one occasion. He’s not on the programme tonight, but his people are. The band strikes up, the dressage of costume ranks into a loose column, taxis try to push through, the police stand, ineffectual. There’s an effeminate St Miguel leading the devils; there’s the fire-breathing serpents, there’s the suckered tentacles of vipers, there’s body-hugging, hot-panted girls in pulsing lights, there’s the bulge-eyed, swollen -ongued, negro masks. There’s hairy beavers and black-pelted bears.  A mix of Animism and Christianity that has me wondering if there’s an element of Asian influence. I half expect a prancing, conga-ing dragon to appear. There’s a story to be solved.
San Miguel - thanks to ¡Unboliviable!
The now choreographed band, heavy on drums, trumpet and trombone, blast a beat that reverberates around the plaza, bounces off the bullet-spattered government buildings and springs car alarms that can’t compete. It’s their instruments that dance, the drums going skyward at the end of each rendition, the flared horn pieces that twirl and flash in the streetlights. The beat is throbbing, the footwork rapid shuffle, the progress around the square slow. Firecrackers and squibs crackle as the progression passes under a waterfall of sparklers. Symbolism, allegory and metaphor. From the pain of the negro slaves who suffered abominably in the high altitude mines, to the purification of fire, the Christian passage through the gates and an entrance to heaven. A mix of Christ and Nature. 

It’s 3am and I’m about to hear the next three quarters struck by the cathedral’s bell, as a quad of antipodean travellers debate, to the accompaniment of rap. At a volume that carries throughout the courtyard, just beyond comprehension and well within annoyance. Hostel living without the discipline and the old ethos of the SYHA.  

Back in northern Argentina, we had been entertained by a passing truck driver, who in comical form, mimicked how he reckoned all Paseños spoke. Keeping his wad of bica and coca leaves stuffed in his cheek, he pouted his lips and spoke from the front of his mouth. I took it to be an exaggeration - that is until now. 

She’s like an island, the surge of humans breaking around her, standing resolute in the middle of the road, outside her tour operator’s office, selling it’s wares. Bike descents on ‘death road’, jeeps to the salar, trains to Machu Picchu. She sounds like she might be miked up, only she’s not; her pitch carries clear down the canyon of the street. Our heavy haulage comic got it just right.
It’s a pageantry of noise, a cacophony of colour, that with time slowly dissipates in conscience. It’s when you leave and attain the heights again, find the utter calm of altitude and find that ringing silence in your ears, that you realise how cacophonic a city existence really is. Nuestra Señora de la????