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Authors: Juan de Recacoechea

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American Visa

BOOK: American Visa
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This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Akashic Books
©1994, 2007 by Juan de Recacoechea
English translation ©2007 Adrian Althoff
Originally published in Spanish under the same title in 1994 by Librería-Editorial Los Amigos del Libro, Cochabamba-La Paz, Bolivia.

Bolivia map by Sohrab Habibion

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-20-0
ISBN-10: 1-933354-20-8
eISBN-13: 978-1-617750-57-1
Library of Congress Control Number: 2006936532
All rights reserved

First printing

Akashic Books
PO Box 1456
New York, NY 10009
[email protected]
www.akashicbooks.com

For my wife Rosario and my daughter Paola.
In memory of Don Antonio Alborta.

Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Part Two

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Afterword

Part One

Chapter 1

T
he taxi ground to a halt.
The stocky driver swiveled his beefy head around and, struggling to contain his fury, exclaimed, “We can't go this way!”


What's going on?” I asked.

“Can't you hear the band? They're dancing right over there, practicing for the Great Power of Jesus parade. Those pricks are blocking traffic!”

The dense and tedious cadence of a llama herder's dance sounded off in the distance. Flushed from the impotence of being stuck in traffic, the taxi driver's face inflated like a comic-strip frog. The clamor of horns was intense, unbearable. The driver stretched his arm across the back of the passenger seat, fixed his frustrated gaze on a distant point, and waited.

“Where are we?”

“Plaza Eguino. You'll have to get out here.”

The man was right; we were tied up in a knot of cars and buses.

“How much do I owe?”

“It'll be ten pesos.” He spoke without blinking, looking me in the eyes.

“For twelve pesos I can get to Oruro.”

The taxi driver smiled and blinked nervously several times. He seemed to be running out of patience. “We've stopped at all the hotels on Muñecas Street and Manco Kapac. We've been driving in circles for half an hour.”

“That's not my fault,” I pointed out. “The hotels are full.”

“That's just the way it is.”

“Let's make it seven. That way we're even.”

The taxi driver remained motionless, an Andean monolith.

I took out ten pesos and placed them in his sweaty palm.

“If you go down Illampu Street, you might find a room,” he said.

The driver opened the door, lowered my suitcase from the luggage rack, and placed it on the sidewalk beside a young woman selling lemons dressed in the traditional clothing of Potosí: a stiff cloth hat in the shape of an inverted bowl, a homespun thick brown skirt, and, covering her upper body, several layers of dark, multicolored blankets. I sat on top of the knee-high adobe and stucco wall that encloses Plaza Eguino. Wind whipped down from the Andean plateau, stirring up swirling clouds of dust on the rugged mountainsides that hug the city of La Paz. The girl from Potosí looked at me askance, took four lemons from their place in the tiny pyramid she had constructed on one of her blankets laid out on the pavement, and showed them to me without saying a word. I declined her offer with a slight head motion. A boy no more than ten years old and skinny as an Ethiopian approached stealthily, shifting hesitantly. I thought he was after my suitcase, so I stuffed it awkwardly between my legs. The boy looked like a rogue. The wind mussed his thick mop of hair.

He stopped two steps away and eyed me with that elusive scan typical of the Aymaras.

“I don't have any money. You're wasting your time.”

“I'll carry the bag for you,” he proposed.

“Do you know a cheap hotel around here?”

He motioned with his index finger toward a jumble of alleys and dilapidated hovels.

“How much will it be?”

“Two pesos.”

His Oriental-looking face had been burnt brown by the high-altitude sun. His eyes were emotionless, the eyes of a survivor.

The boy heaved my suitcase up on top of the wall, then onto his shoulder. I followed him down narrow, cobblestoned sidewalks jammed with people. It was early evening and the temperature was misleadingly pleasant. During the winter in La Paz, the air is lukewarm toward the end of the afternoon, when the sun flees beyond the mountains to the west, only to freeze abruptly as soon as the shadows arrive. It was becoming difficult to wind through the endless rows of street vendors hawking their merchandise. An appetizing odor of burnt pork fat filled the air, but it wasn't the time for such an indulgence. I needed to find a cheap room as soon as possible in a city that I struggled to recognize; half a million hungry peasants had changed its face. These immigrants from the sterile Andean plateau had taken over La Paz's higher-elevation neighborhoods, like ants swarming over a beehive. A wild rustling accompanied their movements. This gray, unruly mass transformed the entire city into a gigantic marketplace.

On Illampu, a cobblestoned artery flanked by party specialty shops and pork rind sellers, papier mâché dolls hung, fragile and festive, above old front doors of carved wood. To keep pace with the boy, I had to jog and sidestep the voluminous half-breed women seated like tired octopuses on the edges of the sidewalks. The kid stopped at the corner of Graneros, a steep colonial corridor that winds like an alleyway in an Algerian casbah, cobblestoned and slippery, climbing amid colorful garments hung out to dry. The competing smells of old clothing, fried pork rind, and urine were enough to make anyone nauseous, even someone accustomed like me to the fetid effluence of Bolivia's cities.

“There's a hotel over there,” the boy said.

Twenty steps away, up Graneros Street, I made out a yellow, weather-beaten sign illuminated by a dying light bulb.

“Hotel California,” the little rascal exclaimed.

I paid him the two pesos and picked up my suitcase. After pushing through a swinging door, I found myself inside a chilly and spacious lobby. Various bored-looking guests sat watching a television news program. I turned to the reception desk, which consisted of a kind of wood pulpit bracketed on both sides by a waist-high handrail. A dry, lean man with white skin dotted by an enormous number of tiny freckles stopped doodling in an accounting ledger and directed his beady blue eyes at me without the least bit of deference. He wore glasses and his eyebrows, thick and bristly, looked like sulfur-colored brooms. His reddish hair and mannered bearing gave him the look of a decadent descendant of Celts. He was wearing a simple cherry-colored wool sweater and jeans. He managed, barely, to give a hint of a smile like that of a low-paid public employee.

“I need a room for one week,” I said.

The man breathed in the lobby's heavy air, as if to pronounce a sentence. He adjusted his glasses with studied affectation and looked me over from head to toe. “We've got three kinds of rooms: facing the street at ten pesos, the first patio at eight pesos, and the second patio at five pesos.”

“I'll take one in the second patio,” I hastened to say.

“I'm the manager. My name's Robert,” he stated with an unpleasant little smile. His pupils grew as calm as two blue marbles. “Only one person?”

I shot a furtive glance over my left shoulder. I was alone, so alone that I felt like crying.

“It costs five pesos per day,” Robert said, “not including taxes.”

“I don't need a receipt.”

“You'll have to pay for the seven nights up front. It's the rule.”

I counted out thirty-five pesos and handed it to him.

“And you'll need a valid ID.” He laid his slippery conjurer's fingers on the edge of the desk and seized the document.

“A week from now I'm traveling to the United States,” I offered. “I've come to La Paz to get my tourist visa.”

The redhead arched his eyebrows. The corners of his mouth got longer and a condescending sneer appeared. He looked up, his gaze displaying incredulity. “Your ID says that you're a teacher.” He looked at me as if he had read “astronaut.”

“I was. Now I'm a businessman,” I clarified.

“Now we're all businessmen. For us Latin Americans, the black market has become the only way out . . .” He let loose a wicked little laugh. As he worked on copying my personal information, I looked around at the regulars in the lobby: the majority were young women with ample breasts and oversized derrières trapped in bright-colored jeans. They were unmistakably hostesses or cheap whores, of the type that spend half their lives saving a few pesos to support their families living in remote tropical villages.

BOOK: American Visa
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