Dispatch from Interzone: Shopping for Centipede Meat

Back in November of 2009, City Lights hosted a celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch, during which a mix of local authors, old friends and colleagues of the late William Burroughs gathered at San Francisco’s Make Out Room to read passages from his seminal Beat novel. I was honored to be among them, though I’m the first to admit I’ve struggled with Naked Lunch a number of times. The book simultaneously demands and yet defies being read, at least my own attempts. Burroughs as an orator, however, has few equals. I will never forget the night when I was eleven or twelve years old, watching Saturday Night Live in one of its earliest seasons. The host, Lauren Hutton, stepped onto the stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William Burroughs.”

I had no idea who he was, this man who looked older than God, resplendent in a suit and tie, his face weathered with age (and more) but intact, smiling with his eyes. Burroughs sat behind a table with sheets of a Naked Lunch manuscript and there he read to the audience a scene wherein Dr. Benway performs surgery aboard a sinking ship, the cigarette hanging from his mouth spilling ashes into the patient’s incision.

Burroughs had a prominent nasal quality in his voice, laced with a predatory snarl. His pitch alternated between a menacing monotone and a cheerful rise-and-fall synched with the rhythm of his words, as though he were reading a bedtime story to a child. That was the first and last time SNL ever aired such a thing and the show has never been as daring since. William S. Burroughs left his mark on me, that evening.

Peter Maravelis asked if I had any preference as to which passage from Naked Lunch I’d like to read for the event. I said I had none, that I was fine with whatever he chose for me. Peter selected an excerpt in which Burroughs gives the reader a prolonged and sweeping panorama of Interzone, “A Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.” A massive, open-air, free-trade circus that is all at once grandiose, depraved and spectacular, Interzone is a confluence of Mexico, South America and Morocco, all places where Burroughs had lived while either running from the law or writing or both. Burroughs created his Interzone as a place where everything under the sun—licit and illicit; real or imagined—could be bought or sold:

“…Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Harmaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bang- utot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war…. A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum…”

Peter Maravelis knew my plan to expatriate to South America and finish my novel, and he knew the plan was well under way. His choice of that passage from Naked Lunch was far more deliberate and prophetic than I appreciated at the time. It was after I understood his subtle message that I dubbed this travel diary Dispatches from Interzone.

My first foray into the open-air market, the Cancha, of Cochabamba, Bolivia, was the day I landed. Jet-lagged and sleep deprived after twenty-two hours on three planes and four airports, I hadn’t adjusted to the city’s altitude. I was about a hundred IQ points shy of what I’d left with and I’d need a few days to grow them back, for my body to amp-up its red blood cell count to compensate for the thin air. But I’d promised my friends and loved ones back in San Francisco that I’d set up a cell phone as soon as I arrived. The moment I set foot in the marketplace, I saw just how real the Burroughs brainchild of Interzone could be.

Traffic laws don’t apply in the Cancha. Nor, apparently, do the laws of physics, of the time-space continuum. Turn your back on a fruit vendor and you’ll miss the rippling in the air and that fruit vendor is gone. I can’t see the hills from most points in the market, and the hills around the city are the best way to orient myself (I’ve been cursed with a complete lack of any sense of direction; if the Devil has a compass, I’m the needle). The fastest method to find something in the Cancha is to give up looking. The Cancha knows what you want, it lures you in then silently shuffles the grid around you. Try getting out and you’re suddenly lost; get lucky and find your way, and there in front of you is the thing you’ve been looking for all afternoon. You make your purchase—the spices, the whiskey, the bootleg dvd—and you’re suddenly tired, parched. Maybe a bit hungry. So you wander a little further, look for a cholita selling tucamanas, or cooking sonzos or anticuchos over a grill, with hopefully some ice left in her bucket of sodas. Then the sun goes down and the streets change again. The Cancha knows.

Each street is a mixture of permanent shops—small concrete bunkers with metal roll-up doors—temporary kiosks, booths and small tents, along with vendors pushing carts or barrows. Most of them have a phone next to their display of candy bars or screwdrivers, so you can make a call while you peruse their selection sink stoppers, straight razors or plantains. Some merchants stake their claim of pavement with just their wares spread across a blanket. Oh, the blankets… woven from llama wool dyed in screaming bright pinks and blues. The cholitas use them for everything, lugging to and from the market with the blanket wrapped around their shoulders and knotted across their chest, their cargo slung in back—produce, electrical tools, a portable gas grill or an infant.

The market’s commerce is loosely organized by aggregates of similar vendors. One street is all flowers, another is hardware. There’s an entire block of shops selling bicycles and bicycle parts, but I seldom see bicycles in Cochabamba, and almost never outside the market. Another street is all shoes, another nothing but liquor. Off the streets and into one of the massive tents covering the entire block, the commerce is likewise segregated.

But this is the Cancha, not a shopping mall. There is no piped-in music or central fountain or carousel. The shopping mall is artificial, an insular and static environment where nothing is random and everything is predicted. The Cancha is alive. It thrives on the random and the unpredictable, the unforeseen and the dangerous. For every street of kindred sellers, there’s another that’s pure chaos:

Scores of dogs and small children. A tiny girl with black braids longer than my forearm. A cage of live chickens. A man selling individual bandaids from a roll. Two men selling baskets of fruit, most of which I have never seen and couldn’t identify on a bet. Cholitas hawking fresh baked bread from wicker hampers. A boy pushing a wooden cart filled with new socks. Canvas booths offering whiskey and tequila beside another booth stocked with stationary and children’s school supplies. A row of cholitas on sidewalk blankets selling votive candles pulverized herbs, rat traps and women’s underwear. Fortune tellers, seven or eight of them, divining with tarot cards or coca leaves. One booth showcasing pump shotguns, extendable batons and curling irons; the next specializing in confetti, enormous burlap sacks of it, sorted by color. Another cholita churns out sandals from a mound of scrap rubber. She uses nothing but a simple kitchen knife sharpened on the rock beside her; each shoe from start to finish takes her as long brushing your teeth.

Cloves of garlic the size of tangerines. Cords of sugar cane and cinnamon bark. Bees swarm around honeycombs fixed to a plank nailed across the middle of a bright red wheelbarrow filled with honey. I pay ten bolivianos to an old man in a cowboy hat. He ladles honey into a half-pint plastic jar that I imagine will last me three weeks but it’s gone in a matter of days. It tastes like wild sage and is the best honey I’ve ever had. I’ve yet to see him again.

Doctors and dentists, some with their waiting rooms exposed to the street, all with hand-painted signs listing their services: curaciones; sueros; inyecciones; rayos-x. I see a doctor in one of the lobbies, a clipboard and a copy of Mein Kampf under his arm. Other merchants sell medicines harvested from the nearby jungles, dense displays of herbs in bags and bottles and teas, labeled for every conceivable ailment. Small gaming rooms house forty year-old pinball machines adjacent to gambling parlors with a cashier, a half-dozen games that resemble pachinko machines and a few others I don’t recognize. One shop specializes in glass laboratory supplies, another sells second-hand dental chairs.

Canopies cover the interior of the block. Turn off the street, go inside and you’ll once more find similar merchants gathered in close quarters. Butchers, produce vendors and others with enormous bags of pasta, crates of eggs or boxes of laundry soap. But keep going. There’s an arcade with nothing but opulent white cakes on both sides running the length of the block. One intersection has stalls with every regional hat from Bolivia stacked to the rafters. Still another arcade is nothing but children’s shoes, and another nothing but fabric vendors. The bolts of cloth go from floor to ceiling and before you reach the center, the walls have muted the mayhem of the surrounding Cancha. It’s one of the quietest places I’ve ever been. Further on, piles of the luminous llama wool blankets, then a white grotto crammed with devotional paintings and statues like a small warehouse. A chain blocks the entry, but a table of votive candles sits within reach, should you have a cause to pray. A blind man has his own tiny booth beneath the canopy. He wears an enormous cross around his neck, carries his red and white cane in one hand, a bell in the other, and keeps a bucket for donations on a stand beside him. He speaks in rapid-fire tongues as though cranking through radio stations in his head and he chimes his bell at regular intervals. He’s surrounded by listeners, presumably those seeking his access to God. Across from the blind prophet, two cholitas stand behind a wall of four-foot burlap sacks nearly overflowing with freshly harvested coca leaves. I buy a larger bag than usual, hoping they’ll let me take a photograph, but they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with shopping malls; they have their place. Mostly I’m there for the movies but sometimes I buy clothes or Christmas presents. But at the Cancha, I can buy a wedding cake or a live chicken. Or both. I can keep the chicken and give it a name or use it for food or ritual sacrifice. At the Cancha, I can learn my fortune on the street, then pray for a better one beneath the tent. I can talk to my friends from a pirate music vendor’s hotwired landline and I can talk to God through a blind bell ringer. I can eat fruits I’ve never seen before or ever will again. Hear a language spoken nowhere else in the world, by fewer people than the population of my home town. I can gamble on strange machines; buy liquor or a psychoactive plant, freely and openly. A plant that’s outlawed anywhere it’s incapable of growing, which is almost everywhere else. And when I’m done with the liquor and the leaves and the gambling, I can be healed. By a doctor, a medicine man or a preacher. It’s all here, salvation and damnation by the god or devil of your choosing. Or maybe you just need food for yourself and your family. Shoes for the little one, a lightbulb for the kitchen.

I miss home, as much as I love it here. Every day I think about my friends and loved ones, my favorite bars and places to eat, the coffee shop down the block from my brother’s house where I spent my mornings writing. I miss luxuries, things like a mattress and potable water. But I know once I’m home again, I’ll miss the Cancha and its vibrating soundless hum.

The novel is coming together. After five years I’m finally within sight of a finished, working draft. But I can’t afford to change my flight or extend my visa, so I’m working as much as I can until it’s time to go:

Mr. Edison, you don’t have to worry about me. As for that package, it’s yours. But I’d be remiss in my messenger detail if I didn’t forespeculate some bad news making way for the good. Something about hearing your name makes the hair on your soul stand on end. None of my business. I’m just saying, you want to cut loose that moldy mojo, you got to walk through the worst of it to get to the better.

And so on.


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