One dog in particular stands out in my neighborhood. Longish white fur mottled with hazy black spots, she looks like an out-of-focus Dalmatian. Her bright blue eyes are visible from half a block away like twin pinpoints of television static. I see her on the sidewalk one night, standing perfectly still and facing my direction. A woman holds her in a way that suggests restraint—one arm around the torso, palm against her chest—but the blurry, blue-eyed dog shows no want of anything but to stand perfectly still. I glance down as I pass. A patch of fur and skin about the size of my open palm is missing from her neck. I see raw tissue, blood crusted on the torn edges of fur but no active bleeding. I’m guessing she was on the losing end of a fight over a burger scrap, though I suppose it could be a gash from a twist of fender.
I don’t know if the woman is the owner, but I’m happy that someone who can do something has their arms around the dog. My Spanish is remedial at best and I have next to no money, so I don’t know how I could have helped. But then I think I’m wrong about the woman being the owner. I see the dog later that night, the wound in her neck open and undressed, scouring the sidewalks near the food vendors along with the rest of the street dogs, fending for herself.
Heading out of the city for the afternoon, I noticed the hills above Cochabamba covered with the same sort of housing growth I was accustomed to during my childhood in Southern California. Sun-parched chaparral hills covered with white stucco and red tile roofs, reminiscent of Laguna Niguel or Mission Viejo, places glamorized by the likes of “The O.C.” or “The Hills.” Places I moved away from when I went to college and promised myself I’d never return.
“The upper class looks the same from here as it does back home,” I said.
Wrong. Those neighborhoods are the last places in Bolivia I want to set foot in, I’m told. Ever.
Dial your wayback machine to way back, settle on some pre-industrial, agrarian community. Medieval peasants, American pioneers, take your pick. Survival depended on groups banding together, with a host of customs, rituals and laws created to cement the group. Most of these things fell within the purview of either the church or the courts, so the church and the courthouse took center stage in the community, with a plaza in between for the public displays of those ceremonies presided over by one of those institutions. Wedding receptions and hangings both come to mind. The town radiated outward from the plaza, and in South America, at least Bolivia, it still does. The wealthier you are, the closer to the center of town you live. Those red tile and stucco houses in the hills? Those are squatter camps. They’ve been there so long the squatters have built permanent structures; they’ve formed their own communities. These are the true outsiders, living quite literally on the margins of society. The houses look pretty from a distance, but there’s no running water and what little electricity they might have is most certainly bootlegged from someone else’s legitimate source. But if you don’t live there, and you accidentally wander in, you probably won’t wander out. I live in a place where the wealthy virtually force the poor and underclass to the hills overlooking the city. One man’s Montecito is another man’s Tenderloin.
We pull into a small village called Tarata. The closest I’ve ever seen to anything like it is from old Westerns. Like the set for a Sergio Leone zombie flick. My friends are taking me to a chicharia, they explain, but that doesn’t help. We step into a small, brick room with about a half-dozen Quechua Indians sitting in chairs against the walls. All of them look to be about a hundred and fifty years old and the room is quieter than any church I’ve ever set foot in. I take off my hat out of reflex. They don’t speak Spanish, much less English. There is one young girl, maybe fifteen or so, who does speak Spanish and my friends talk to her for a moment. She ladles out a pitcher of chicha from a wooden barrel, hands it to us along with a gourd for our group to share. Chicha, I learn at last, is a traditional brew from the Incas. It’s a thick, cloudy liquor made from fermented corn and it’s not for the lightweight. Wendy takes a drink and then tips the gourd, spills a bit out onto the tile floor. For the Earth Mother. She passes the gourd around and well all do the same, then take our chicha into the courtyard. We find a table and drink, sharing the gourd with each other and Mother Earth.
My roommate Pol is an immigration officer. He gave a Spanish translation of my first novel to his boss and now his boss wants to meet me, so we go to his house one night for drinks. Lucho is half-Italian, an enormous bear of a man even by American standards, so I can only imagine the fear he inspires when he and his crew are kicking down doors (or knocking politely, or however they roll). He speaks a bit of English, so the evening goes by without straining Wendy’s involuntary duties as interpreter. We walk to the tienda, pick up a liter of cola and bottle of cheap rum and return to Lucho’s house. We pour drinks and Lucho’s mother joins us, matches us all one-for-one. Her husband, Lucho’s father, was a general in the military during a previous dictatorship.
I’ve had, and still have, vehement political disagreements with both my parents. I’m on the Left, they’re on the Right. We seldom see eye to eye. But Lucho tells me the story of being a little younger and showing up at the dinner table wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. His father was not happy.
“Do you know who that man is? What he stands for? What he did?”
Lucho, like most every other hipster I’ve seen back home wearing the same shirt, knew little more than the man’s name and the vaguest sense of his politics, by virtue of his deification by the young Left. His father hiked up his shirt at the dinner table, showed Lucho the scar from the bullet wound courtesy of Che’s guerillas. Then he said, “When you can tell me everything about that man, where he came from, the battles he fought and why, when you can tell me his whole life and what he stood for, you can wear that shirt to the table, whether I like the man or not.”
I sniff out what I can on the internet about Che Guevara. There’s a lot. I must say, I’m impressed. And appalled. The real story is a lot more complicated than either his enemies or the Mission District hipsters with their Shepard Fairey t-shirts would have you believe. Slogans and catchphrases may galvanize people to action, but they reduce complex reality to simplistic half-truths. And while detailed information makes rational, long-term thinking possible, it’s overwhelming to those working full-time (or more), vying for quality time with their loved ones and in general juggling the responsibilities of living in the twenty-first century. As for who Che Guevara really was, perhaps the most legitimate gut reaction, tempered with the most rational response possible, has come from, of all people, a dictator’s general to his son.
We drink more. Lucho tells more stories. He shows me a recent newspaper photograph of himself, leading the arrest of a cadre of Columbian assassins. The drug lords don’t like Lucho. They’ve called him on his cell phone, described where his mother was and what she was doing. His mother nods, it’s all true.
“I knew the life I was getting into when I married his father,” she says to me.
The cartels killed her other son, Lucho’s brother. Their threats were not, and are still not, idle.
It’s 3:00 a.m. and I can’t sleep. My insomnia seems to get worse with each passing year, but one of the job perks of being a writer is that it generally can’t wreck my day. It might jam the creative gears for a bit but, still, I never stress about having to punch a time clock and direct air traffic on no sleep. But this morning I’m wide awake and it’s clear I’m not going down any time soon. I get dressed and go for a walk. I stick to the main streets, head north toward the nicer part of town. Not a soul out except for taxis who honk at me as I stroll up Av. Ayacucho in the dark. Twenty-five minutes later, I hit the roundabout near the football stadium and head back home via Av. Ballivian. On the opposite side of the roundabout, a pair of headlights flare from behind and I turn to see a car pulling up beside me. No markings at all, not so much as a single taxi sticker. I have a theory that anybody asking for directions or the time in the dark of morning is full of shit. I do a one-eighty, walk behind the car and cross the street. The driver shouts something at me.
I walk backwards without breaking stride and get a look at him. Roughly my age, but heavier set and wearing a military jacket and cap. I holler across the street, “No hablo español.”
He shouts back, “Policia,” and demands to see my ID.
I turn around and keep walking, a little faster. Nothing but instinct. There’s a police station around the corner from my house and I figure he can follow me there, if he wants to. He keeps shouting and I keep walking down Ballivian on the opposite side, against the traffic. He says something, loud enough for me to hear, in a bad Adam-12 voice as though reporting me. He drives away and when he’s out of sight, I double-back, cut through a residential street back to Ayacucho and head home, double-time. I’ve got a photocopy of my passport on me if I need it. My head clears and my first thought is that I’ve fucked up, and next time it won’t be just one cop. That’s not right though and it takes me a minute to put it together: No cop anywhere in the world is going to ask for an ID by leaning out his window. Even if they do, there’s not a chance in Hell that cop will tolerate being ignored, having a civilian turn their back to him.
Pol tells me my instincts were spot on. Cops don’t have patrol cars in Bolivia. They’re either on foot or in groups in back of a truck or van, and those vehicles are clearly marked, as are their uniforms. I’ve heard the stories, the ones where they kidnap you and hold you, take you to the ATM every day to withdraw your max, then cap you when your account dries up. Before I left, Keith just said to shout “author” if I’m ever abducted and they’ll just throw me back. I’m not sure what this guy’s game was, whether he was after money, sex or meat for the cannibal black market. In any case, he wasn’t very good at it. Which is not to say I was on my game either. Next time I can’t sleep, I’ll reach for my notebook instead of my boots.
The next day, I see two Social Distortion t-shirts in one afternoon and that night, one of my favorite writing spots is playing Tom Waits and I can’t quit smiling. We have guests the next week, friends of Pol’s. The first night, I meet Mario. He brings his guitar, tells me how much he loves the blues. The four of us share a few beers and Mario plays Stevie Ray Vaughan, wonderfully bending some words with his accent and glossing over those he doesn’t know with nonsense syllables. But the music is still there, the guts. It’s Stevie Ray Vaughan, after all. Pol has another friend over, a veteranarian. We tell him about the injured dog and he explains that it’s probably not an injury. Worms are feeding on him and it’s a slow, painful death. It’s treatable though, depending on how advanced it is. He gives me his number and says to call him the next time I see the dog. I tell him he won’t have to wait long because I’ll start looking the next day.
Yeah, I’m still writing. Giving serious thought to changing the title, at this point. The story’s evolved so much.
A car alarm. Drunken shouts from the street. The clock read 2:19. Nadine awoke and Lyle brought her to their bed. Zoey fed her and fell back to sleep. Lyle returned his daughter to her crib and went to the kitchen and sat at the table until the windows turned blue.
And so on.