Friday, 22 February 2013

Into the Pit

203kms of road works, or so Evo’s bragging board claims. In this instance it’s the dualling of an existing asphalt road between Oruro and El Capital. Three contractors, two days riding, one vast project, and as each section nears completion, a weather coating of Colas tar is sprayed on. Nobody gets to drive on it yet, the exception being cyclists. Our very own two lane motorway, that’s climbing steadily up to El Alto and the world’s highest cantankerous councillors. You just can’t imagine two cyclists being allowed anywhere near such a construction project in Europe, here we’re being positively encouraged to try out their new facility, despite the circus of scraper blades and packer-whackers, diggers and hand mixed concrete.

If that created a degree of novelty, then what followed, entered the realm of surreality. We’ve been watching the slow progress of what appears to be conurbation rise slowly out of the dust, spreading across our path, yet the sum of map and kilometre posts don’t add up to either a logical answer or a major city. As we crest each subsequent rise, perspective and definition coalesce into blocks that might be buildings and a gap that should be our road. Far off to my east appears to be a quarry pit. It has to be El Alto, yet still the distance marks can’t agree, they won’t confirm. But it is, only it’s flowed out beyond it’s previous high water mark, sprawled from the last time the road signs were posted.

El Alto, La Paz’ alter ego. The de-facto Aymara capital, the city ‘burgh’ that controls the only effective road in and out of the Bolivian capital, that with a few burning tyres can close down what the militant local councillors up on the rim like to term ‘the pit’. It’s a place I’ve read about, have created a mental image of, and now we’re right in the middle of it.
It’s manic. It’s mayhem. It’s brilliant manic mayhem. No rules apply. Forget lane discipline. Forget the niceties of polite queuing. It’s El Alto. Slowly everything comes to a stop. Five and a half lanes of solid, stationary colectivos, where three might suffice. Nothing is moving with the exception of the horn hand. Abandoning their transport, weaving through the perfect jammage, for there’s little room on the stall-congested pavements. We’re advised to try the same. A man with a cuddly toy stand and Tannoy occupies part of a junction, yet he doesn’t seem to be part of the problem; he’s just taking advantage of the current impasse to steal a few vacant square metres of retail space. We push our way forward to the next junction, the next ineffectual, redundant traffic cop, the next set of traffic lights, that have countdown to the next change of phase, the next non movement of transports. Slowly those hand horns become more strident, more insistent, slowly we approach the reason and the solution. It’s been those colectivos all along. Those hands on horns aren’t aggressives, aren’t impatiences, they’re the calling cards of part-filled buses that won’t move off until they’ve captured at least just one more passenger, there’s always room for just one more passenger, before their descent down into the ‘pit’. I wonder at this lotto-roulette, to wait for just one more fare, or to run part filled, get into town and fill for a quick turnaround on the return journey. Yet I suspect they’ve honed their art to a fine point, in much the same way that I would script a similar scenario not happening in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. The Gorgie effing, the Morningside tutting. You can hear it from over the equator.

Eventually we reach the front, an open road and the ‘No Cycling’ sign. It’s Bolivia, so we ignore it, in much the same way as the policeman who smiles and waves us on. Out, into thin air and over the edge.

Through the sooty lead cloud of a labouring truck and the
sudden sweet, near sickly aroma of a chocolate factory, we get our first sighting of the city. It has to be one of the world’s greatest, most sudden, instant urban views. Like falling through a cloud bank in a descending aircraft, only you’re stationary and not being subjected to decompression ear popping or the imminent angst of the baggage carousel. A roofscape of  orange pantiles and silvered corrugations, the cartographic sweep of an ascending road, the splash of football pitches each with their own mis-matched ‘Subbuteo’ teams. All framed from our mirador by a fringe of gum trees.We push off, letting gravity offer it‘s luxurious pay-back, sweeping down through a succession of long switchbacks, that leads us, near instantly and suddenly in another colectivo jammage, disorientated and lost amongst the hordes of wandering tourists in the Plaza San Francisco. We’ve arrived, alive, in yet another Americas’ capital.