Dispatch from Interzone: Breathing on Mars

I step off the plane in La Paz fifteen hours after leaving SFO. My carry-on feels ten times heavier than when I brought it on board and I’m having a tough time breathing. Inside the airport there’s an oxygen station and I know the thin air isn’t my imagination. I’ve lived at sea-level my entire life. A few hours later I’m on my third flight and at last, almost a full day since I left San Francisco, I reach my new home: Cochabamba, Bolivia. Spanish Colonial architecture in varying states of disrepair and ruin. Bursts of color from shop signs and the native garb of the street vendors; the multi-colored busses and sometimes whole buildings painted luminescent pink or green. It’s barely noon but it feels like midnight. My adopted home city is at 8,500 feet, it’s streets crammed with vehicles and there’s no smog control. Combine the thin air, carbon monoxide and hallucinatory colors with my thirty-six sleepless hours and I feel like I’m breathing on Mars.

Whatever I need–food, toiletries, hardware–is usually sold by a street vendor, and similar vendors will congregate along particular streets. My friend, new roommate and guide, Wendy Dale, helps me get settled. She takes me to a street with nothing but cell phones and accessories. I find a cheap, disposable Nokia and then seek out two more vendors for the appropriate calling cards. Nobody gets a cell phone bill here, it’s pay-as-you-go. I need an adaptor for my laptop cord, so Wendy takes me to another street where the old Indian women mind card tables and soap crates stocked like mini-Radio Shacks. They’re remarkably specific in their wares, carrying a dozen or so related items but sometimes less. On another street, one cart sold nothing but padlocks and another only sold carbon-copy receipt pads in bulk.

I ignore my self-preservation instincts and dive into the street food. We eat tucumanas, fried pastries stuffed with meat and potatoes. The locals eat while standing at the cart, heaping minced onions and pickled chiles onto their food. I take mine plain, chase it with orange juice squeezed from the adjacent vendor. Another woman changes my American bills for Bolivianos; Wendy tells me that money changers on the street give a much better rate than the banks, but I need to watch for old, tattered bills and counterfeits. Yes, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for counterfeit bills of a foreign currency I’ve never seen. And avoid large bills whenever possible, she says, because they’re a bitch to break.

We eat dinner that night and afterwards go for a drink. A little girl, maybe five years old, walks into the bar selling cigarettes. I’m not sure which is stranger, that children can walk into bars or that they can sell cigarettes. I’m sleep-deprived; I’ve had exactly six drinks over the previous two months, so my liver’s out of practice doing my dirty work; I’m more than a mile-and-a-half above sea level and my body has yet to crank out the extra red blood cells it needs for me to breathe normally. Three beers and I’m not sure ever I’ll wake up.

But I do wake. Most definitely, I do. I chalk off the tuba noise to a bad dream until the whole ensemble fires up around 8:00 a.m. Horns, drums, cymbals and flutes playing some sort of tango-waltz fusion. The Cochabamba Municipal Marching Band practices on an adjacent rooftop, but they may as well be in my bedroom. It’s like waking to an orchestra playing stripper music for clowns. I can’t sleep anymore but have to laugh. I brush my teeth with bottled water and brave the shower. Wendy says she has one of the better ones, as it’s not likely to shock me like one of the local hotel showers. The only drawback is that I have to choose between heat and pressure. I find a midpoint that feels like warm rain and manage to clean up without getting electrocuted.

The coffee here is magnificent. Wendy hips me to a sweetener extracted from a local jungle leaf. Just a tiny dash of this stuff is equivalent to two or three sugar cubes. I can’t resist the novelty so now I take my cafe con leche with a bump of this wonderful plant.

I’m fatally allergic to penicillin, and I had to wear a medical ID bracelet as a kid. That was a long time ago and penicillin’s largely gone the way of the eight-track, so I don’t worry about it in the U.S. anymore. But Wendy says it’s in fairly common use here, so I learn my first, full bore sentences in Spanish: Soy alergico a la penicilina. No me lo administre.

The traffic is insane. The drivers will tap their horn from half a block away which means, “I’m not slowing down for you or anybody.” I stick to the sidewalks which are all about as wide as diving boards. The thin air has my sinuses feeling like they’re packed with gravel and I sneeze blood into my handkerchief a couple of times on my first day. Dehydration contributes to altitude sickness so I drink plenty of water. I buy two or three two liter bottles from the corner tienda until I can brave drinking the tap water, which even locals don’t drink it without boiling it, so I buy an extra two liters of water to use for brushing my teeth. I still avoid fresh vegetables (which should surprise none of my friends back in the States), but I eat a burger from a street vendor and wait for the cramping that never comes.

The circus music wakes me again and this time a mosquito has left its mark–several, actually–during the night. My friends tell me that malaria is actually very rare and I hope they’re right. I don’t feel like rolling the dice with the shower so I splash water on my face and brush my teeth with the bottled stuff. I catch the mosquito parked on the white sheet over my window and slap it, leave the red mark as a warning to the others. If I could mount its severed head on a pike at the crest of a hill, I would, but the head is long gone and my hands aren’t that steady. Three aspirin, some bread, sweetened cafe con leche and a deeper dive into local custom: I strip the stems from a dozen or so coca leaves and pack them into my jaw with a chunk from a sponge of ashy substance. I fire up my notebook and resume my stare-down with the novel. The coca leaves are the Bolivian cure-all. After a week, I step out to a particularly clear day following a night of rain and I’m struggling to breathe again, like I was in the La Paz airport. Coca leaves are the answer, according to the locals. The vendors here sell a variety of catalysts, different types of ash sponge and even little sachets of baking soda. I try a pinch baking soda with the was of leaves and my jaw goes numb, which does wonders for my cracked molars and missing filling, not to mention I can breathe again.

Wendy’s boyfriend, Pol, arrives after work. Pol speaks no English and my Spanish is crude so we speak slowly, gesture a lot and flip through the bilingual dictionary on the kitchen table. We get by with Wendy’s help and I’m forced to light a fire under my Spanish lessons. Pol plays jazz and blues, so I cut him a CD of some of my favorites. I’d been tracking down some Robert Belfour and Alvin Youngblood Hart before I split, but never got to them, and now I’m regretting all the music I left behind. There’s a pair of x-rays mounted to the window beside the kitchen table. Two shots of a femur, above and below. The upper half is Pol’s, the lower is Wendy’s, but they line up very well, visually and metaphorically. Pol’s kneecap is full of screws, and he tells me the story of how he fell from a cliff and was in a coma for three weeks. The family hired a shaman to bring him out of it. It worked, he says.

Funny, because during my monthly walks with Peter back in San Francisco, he compared the act of writing to shamanism. Somebody goes to a place where others can’t, and that someone brings back something valuable for the good of the community. Sometimes that valuable thing is a life. Peter knows what a struggle I’ve been having with this third book, and could all but contain his laughter when I told him I was going to live in South America for a while to write this novel. Going somewhere and coming back with something.

The clown stripper music starts around 9:00 the next morning. Different number this time, more like a funeral dirge for a children’s cartoon show and there seems to be more percussion. Shaving is an ordeal since none of the taps draw hot water, so I boil a pan and set it in the sink. The mirror is a foot or so away, so I walk back and forth to rinse my blade. The band stops playing and I hear the mad shrieking from a flock of conures passing overhead. I’ve yet to see them, but am hoping to get my bird fix with a trip to the nearby jungle. Breakfast: two cups of cafe con leche and some leaves. I set my alarm for two hours and get lost in the work for a while. I transcribe the remaining longhand dialogue and read through the finished chapter, spackling the gaps and sanding down the rough spots.

The routine takes hold quickly. Writing in the morning, exploring the city at lunch time and working on my Spanish throughout the evening. One chapter from my workbook each day, then running through my growing stack of vocabulary flash cards. I have to walk to an internet cafe to get on line; calling the U.S. from my new cell has its own set of flaming hoops. Wendy and Pol are the only people I know, but Pol doesn’t speak English. The rest of my books haven’t arrived from the U.S., so there’s little for me to do but write.The enormity of the commitment is sinking in. The novel gave me the cold shoulder the first couple of days, ignored the new pens I’d bought for it. But it knows I’m not going home without it and seems as though it’s finally getting comfortable in its new surroundings.

“Icarus swung his legs over the barricade, stood atop the stairwell descending into the dormant subway. The shrieking violin echoed from below. A quake fissure split the mosaic wall from sky to cornfield, the black tile scarecrow stranded from the farm by a frozen crack of lightning cut from empty space. Icarus walked down into the dark.”

And so on,


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