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Available for 99 cents on Kindle and free on Smashwords. Find out why this magnetic novel about Bolivia on the brink of revolution has been recognized at the International Book Awards, the Green Book Festival, the Paris Book Festival, the Hollywood Book Festival and the Global e-Book Awards. Follow the choices faced by a group of American expatriates as they fall in and out of love, experiment with native cultures, and take seemingly innocent steps that will drastically shape their destinies.
It is a little-known fact that LSD can be injected intravenously. In 1972, a hippie in Oakland, California, flushed a full syringe of lysergic acid diethylamide down the toilet in anticipation of a police raid. Surprisingly, rather than clogging up the building plumbing, the small syringe found its way into the city’s combined sewer system. In dry weather, our story may have ended there, but the unseasonable torrents of rain that week mingled the sanitary sewage with the stormwater runoff and created an overflow of noxious liquids, which was shunted through an outfall pipe leading into the bay.
Embarking on an adventure that an inanimate object could not fully appreciate, the little syringe hit the Pacific Ocean, caught a westward-moving current, and eventually found itself more than three-thousand miles away from its birthplace in Linden, New Jersey—circling the outer edges of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest collection of plastic refuse. A constantly circulating trash vortex beginning five-hundred miles off of the California coast, the garbage patch covers roughly twice the area of the continental United States and swirls across the northern Pacific past Japan and as far south as Hawaii. It continuously draws into its event horizon the plastic bags, bottles, tampon applicators, ballpoint pens, lens caps, yoghurt containers, CD jewel cases, and other nonbiodegradable refuse of the Pacific Rim nations.
In 2002, the syringe, which had made one and one-half tours of the giant vortex and now hovered on its southeast edge, was snapped up by a young Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), which mistook it for a squid. The toothfish and its school meandered east to the coast of Chile before they were netted by a group of pirate sea bass fishermen who sailed with their catch back to Tocopilla, unloaded the illegal harvest onto ice trucks in the wee hours of the morning, and, after three weeks at sea, hurried back to their homes to shower and to make love with their wives.
On that same spring morning in September, Pilar “Queca” Ortega de Feliz, the housekeeper for the Torres family, purchased tomatoes, potatoes, onions, three heads of garlic, a half kilo of mussels, a string of dried guajillo chili peppers, and a small merluza negra (as the toothfish, or sea bass, was called in Tocopilla). She stuffed her purchases into an enormous straw shopping basket and trudged back to the Torres house to make a delicious seafood soup. When slitting open the merluza negra, Queca saw the syringe and, disgusted, threw the entire fish in the garbage.
That night, the local neighborhood cats found a feast worth fighting for. A vicious feline brawl broke out in the back alley of the wealthy neighborhood, a resident threw a shoe, and a lucky tomcat snatched an entire fish and high-tailed it into his secret den, the canvas-covered bed of a 1987 four-wheel-drive pickup truck. Imagine the cat’s surprise when he awoke the next morning from a sated sleep to find the truck in motion. He cowered over his fish and, with a cat’s limited sense of time, had no idea how long he had spent on his voyage.
Rico Herrera, on the other hand, who was manning the truck, knew exactly how long the trip lasted. It was a fourteen-hour journey from Tocopilla, and, every September before the Fiestas Patrias, Rico took off a week from his successful gardening business to drive up to the coastal town at Lake Titicaca where his Aymara mother, blanco father, and extended family of five siblings, sixteen aunts and uncles, and countless nieces, nephews and cousins still lived.
By the time he reached Puno and pulled his truck to a stop, Rico’s lower back was aching. So, although normally an animal lover, he was in no mood when, drawing back the canvas splayed over his truck bed, he saw a flea-ridden cat with half a rotten fish cowering in the cardboard box that held the beautiful hand-loomed woolen blanket that he had purchased in Santiago last month for his mother.
“Puto gato!” Rico yelled. The cat leaped immediately out of the pickup truck, touched ground in Peru, and dashed off to make a life for itself in its new country. Rico grabbed the half-eaten fish and hurled it fifteen feet where it landed, with a splash, in the waters of Lake Titicaca. Mrs. Herrera washed the blanket several times, but it lost some color and never smelled completely fresh again.
Point of information: Homoeopaths say that you can cure a disease with a nip of the dog that bit you. Stimulate a symptom that mimics the symptoms of your disease, and the body’s immune system will, in turn, cure itself. Do you suffer from hemorrhoids or varicose veins? Horse chestnut causes swelling of the veins, and miniscule doses of horse chestnut-derived remedies can cure these unsightly or painful conditions. What about acne, carbuncles, and pustules? Treat these, a homeopath will tell you, with trace amounts of anthrax poison. A homeopathic remedy is the morning-after vaccine.
But, homoeopaths will also tell you something even stranger—something that extends beyond the meager realms of biochemistry and physiology into the magical arenas of New Age dogma and high-energy physics. The weaker the homeopathic solution, says the homoeopath, the stronger it is. A homoeopath preparing a remedy may begin with a small measure of, say, sulfur, intended to cure digestive disorders. This sulfur is then diluted in a vial of water and agitated vigorously. A mere drop from the diluted solution is retained in the vial, more water is added, more vigorous agitation. This process can continue until there is actually not a single atom of sulfur left in the water at all. All that remains is the essence of the sulfur—its unique vibration, its energy. It is this energy that makes the remedy strong.
Our syringe, flushed thirty years ago down a commode in Oakland, waits inside its rotting fish before being snapped up by a local cormorant. With its trace vestiges, diluted down to the millionth power, of LSD still clinging to its synthetic inner surface, it sails in the bird’s gullet across the border into Bolivia and continues only a few miles—but significant miles—into the neighboring watershed before the water fowl, sensing something not quite right, settles on a small shrub and disgorges the contents of its upper digestive track into the stream below. Finally breaking free of the rotting sea bass flesh, the syringe pours downhill through a series of rivers and streams winding their way across the Andes. It rides through desolate plains of mosses and rock, and it flows past isolated villages built of dry stone. It avoids the dipping snouts of drinking llamas, vicunas and alpacas, and the water buckets of highland campesinos.
Downhill, down, obeying the pull of gravity it goes, over a cascade and into regions where the waters grow steadily warmer, where lush vegetation—giant fronds, colored flowers, and fruits—lines the banks. It reaches the base of the mountains, flows into a marsh, and, as suddenly as it began its journey three decades ago, it stops. It stops in a marsh in Los Yungas, Bolivia, the geographical transition between the towering spinal cord of the Andes and the sprawling lowlands of Amazonia. It works its way deeper into the mud. The little plastic vial fills with rich dark silt. Its journey, apparently, has ended. Its physical existence has become stasis. With years still remaining until it decomposes, it simply rests.
In the marsh, reeds spring up, butterflies and dragonflies appear and disappear in their seasons, blossoms burst open on the trees and from the fertile earth below, and birds and monkeys gather on the banks to drink. Fat salamanders and vibrant poisonous frogs paddle through the stagnant water. One juvenile caiman, a cousin of alligators and crocodiles, patrols her small domain—snatching fish, frogs and turtles when she can. Rarely does the marsh see a human being.
Graduation from Brown was the best day of his life. Not summa cum laude. Not magna cum laude. Just cum laude, but acceptable. Good enough to grab a degree and get out. Good enough for his father, despite family protests, to turn off his oxygen that evening and light a cigar. “My youngest child out of school, it’s something to celebrate,” he rasped, before promptly dying—not of the emphysema, but of a brain aneurism, something entirely unrelated and entirely unexpected.
Scratch that. Graduation from Brown was the best day of his life until 8:49 that evening when his father, Raul Banzer, whom he had admired, loved, and deeply adored, but largely from a distance, was announced dead on arrival at Providence Hospital. “It’s this damn little provincial town,” wailed his mother, who thought anywhere but New York and Paris were petty bourgeoisie pretenders to real cities. “At Bellevue they would have helped him.”
Martin, who was still burping portabella steak in brown sauce after the turbulent departure from the restaurant, could hardly make eye contact with her. This evening, and for many months to come, it would be all about her.
Siblings crowded around the matriarch, offering comforting hugs, pats and coos. Rubies, emeralds, gold and purple amethyst sparkled on fingers, wrists, earlobes. His half-sister, Frances, slipped a perfectly tanned arm around the stately woman and gently hugged. “Mamita, mamita, we’ll be okay. He was happy today, mamita, we’ll be okay.” Frances spoke with perfect native Spanish, which Martin deeply resented.
He saw the weeks ahead unfolding unavoidably before him. Funeral arrangements. White oleanders. Cremation, but a traditional mass and a funeral plot at St. Luke’s. Lawyers. Papers. One half-brother, two brothers, four half-sisters, two ex-wives. Plenty to sort out, and the Banzer family machinery would chug forward making it all happen. Politely, efficiently. There would be nothing to dispute, nothing to contest. Every i would be dotted. Every t crossed. Every loophole tightly closed.
A hand slipped into his. His oldest half-sister, Karen. She squeezed him while they watched nurses, doctors, and orderlies filing by. Blue scrubs, pink scrubs, cheerful yellow walls designed to evoke warm and hopeful feelings. But no amount of color could disguise the antiseptic smells and the pervading atmosphere of sickness and death. “What am I going to do?” his mother was crying. “What now? What now?”
Martin knew what he was going to do. He was going to La Paz.
It took him two months before he could get on that flight. Papers signed, bank accounts established, and a well worn passport in hand, he walked up the narrow gangway. It was a small plane, and crowded. The highest altitude capital in the world, La Paz, with its thin air, could only accommodate small planes. This, the pilot explained midway through the trip when he checked in to chat with the passengers. His accent was heavy and barely understandable.
Martin sat in the emergency exit row with extra leg room. To his left and to his right, missionaries in bright blue T-shirts, which said “First Baptist Helping Hands,” crowded him. The man to his right explained that they were building a church in Beni. Martin nodded politely. He could tolerate the ones who brought schools and hospitals; he didn’t feel so enthusiastic about a church. When they passed through a storm and the plane started bucking wildly, the man to his left smiled and patted the cross that hung from his neck. “No worries,” he said. “We travel with a little extra insurance.”
At the airport, the customs officer read Martin’s passport and eyed him curiously. Yes, his last name was Banzer. Like the former general, dictator, and president. His father’s second cousin. Martin had never met the man. In fact, he had never been to Bolivia before.
He didn’t notice the thin air until he reached the baggage claim. Hoisting his backpack from the conveyor belt, he was suddenly out of breath. He crouched on the ground, gasping, and wondered if this was how his father had felt for so much of the last part of his life. Knees and hips and suitcases crowded around him. Then, they parted and someone arrived with an oxygen tank. Martin grabbed the mask gratefully. He was hoisted into a wheelchair and sped to a large room filled with cots. Each cot had an oxygen tank. An old man in a white coat with a Red Cross badge smiled and coaxed him to lie down. “Just rest,” he said in Spanish. “It happens often,” and he walked away. Martin curled up on his side and let the oxygen flow into his lungs, grateful for each little molecule. Exactly how his father must have felt; just not enough air. Since the room was empty, he allowed himself the liberty of crying. ____________
Their goodbye two days ago had been emotional, but not in the way she had hoped. She had expected something grand and heart-wrenching, punctuated with tender dabs of affection. Instead, it had been awkward, scrambling, deeply adolescent. Four years together and she’d never slept with him, and now the main feeling she carried with her was acute dread. The condom had broken. She’d picked up three home pregnancy tests at the drug store this morning. She’d have to wait until tomorrow morning in La Paz to use one. Please, for goodness sake, don’t let her be pregnant. Please.
Cheryl readjusted her pillow. The plane jolted again and her head jarred against the window. Outside, it was pitch black, and she could clearly see her reflection: fine features, high cheekbones, green eyes. She was giving up all hope of sleeping on this journey. She’d read the in-flight magazine cover to cover already, discovering that scrambled calf brains and bull’s penis soup were delicacies she could enjoy in La Paz if she was feeling adventuresome.
She hadn’t been able to complete the crossword puzzle because there were too many questions about Latin America. Ignorant little small-town girl. Four years at UVA and she could speak Spanish and Portuguese fluently, but this was the first time she’d left the country. In fact, she’d never left the East Coast before. Trips to Philadelphia. A summer internship in D.C. She was book smart but experience poor. She’d had to get out of Virginia. Had to. The Peace Corps wouldn’t take her because of her migraines. So, with SOS Bolivia, she’d neglected to mention those. No pre-existing health conditions.
The man to her right wore a blue T-shirt that said “First Baptist Helping Hands.” There were about twenty people dressed that way on the plane. His stomach bulged, and he snored. Whenever the plane jolted, his knee bounced against her.
In her mind, she was composing a letter to Jonathan. She’d email him as soon as she could from La Paz. The letter would be fiction, about the way she wanted things to be: Dearest Jonathan, You and I said goodbye 48 hours ago, and all this time I have been thinking of you. I am so grateful for the way we chose to share our love with each other…
The man to her right was suddenly awake. “Can’t sleep?” he repeated.
“Oh,” she replied. “Gave up trying with all this bumping.”
“Yep, it’s pretty bad.” He fumbled with his seat arm until his overhead light came on. “So, is it your first time in La Paz?”
“First time in South America,” Cheryl answered. “Summer vacation?” he asked.
“Actually, I’m going to be working with street kids for a year.”
“Oh, well that’s a really good cause. Mission work?”
“SOS Bolivia,” she answered.
He seemed to mull this over, then tapped the logo on his T-shirt. “My church has been running missions in Bolivia for over ten years now. We have a hospital. We drill wells. We’re on our way to build a new church now.”
“You’re going to meet some of the most backwards people you’ve ever seen in your life,” he continued. “Folks who can’t read. Folks who’ve never seen a flush toilet. The worst place I’ve ever seen in my life is this ledge off the Andes on the way to Los Yungas. There’s a little trickle of water that runs over the rocks. The whole village relieves themselves on a stone slab there at the edge of the mountain. I had to use it, and couldn’t figure out if it would be worse to fall forwards off the cliff or to fall backwards into all the, pardon my French, crap. Worst thing I ever smelled in my life.”
“Well, that’s quite…” Cheryl struggled for the right adjective. “Something.” She liked “backwards” as a direction. She liked it less as a way to describe people.
“From the South?”
“You from the South?”
“Virginia,” she answered.
“Well, that’s North to me.” He extended a pudgy hand. “Gus Adams. I’m from Jacksonville.” She accepted the hand. It was sweaty. “Cheryl Lewis,” she said.
He shared with her about a sewage system his church had built in Pando, and he insisted on trading email addresses before she dedicated the remainder of the flight to pretending to sleep. The plane landed precisely at sunrise. As they crested the mountains and honed in on the airport, Cheryl looked out at a city bathed in pink. Skyscrapers, a river, dirt roads. Rows upon rows of houses clung to the edges of cliffs, jutting out at impossible angles and stacked like Legos. Her new home.
She negotiated customs with her school-learned Spanish, suddenly feeling confident. At the baggage carousel, Gus helped her with her backpack and her suitcase. “I’ll be in touch, Cheryl. I’ll definitely be in touch,” he said and clapped a hand on her back as she took hold of her baggage cart. As she was navigating her way through the crowd, she noticed a cluster of people to her right. A young man with curly dark hair was kneeling on the ground, gasping. Mal de alutura, “air sickness,” she heard people saying.
Carefully, Cheryl steered her cart toward the exit door and, she hoped, to the welcome of a representative from SOS Bolivia holding up her name on a sign. Please, for heaven’s sakes, she was thinking as the automatic doors opened into her new life in La Paz. Please don’t let me be pregnant.
The cholitas woke up with the sunrise, donned pleated skirts, flat shoes and bowler hats, and packed their wares in large folds of cloth which they slung over their shoulders. Surely, steadily, they streamed through the pockmarked streets, stray dogs shuffling into and out of their paths, embroidered shawls barely keeping out the cold morning air. Batteries, alarm clocks, Oreo cookies—they were a walking WalMart winding their way through the streets of El Alto, bearing anything that a rich tourist or a well-to-do La Pazian could possibly want to buy.
The cholitas slipped around buildings, passed through back alleys, found cobble-stoned passages. Their thick legs carried them down the steep inclines with the confidence bred into them by generations. Aymara, Quetchua, proud descendants of the Inca empire.
Their long black braids slapped against their backs as they trotted down stairs, hopped over gutters. They spilled out of the dirt roads of El Alto and onto the paved streets of La Paz. They marched past buildings erected without permits on Andean clay, just waiting to wash away in a coming landslide. They skirted around piles of garbage, which hadn’t been collected for weeks, and kept moving down, down toward the wealthy part of town with its clean streets, rich tourists and its secure middle class.
They carried ruddy babies bundled in fabric over one shoulder and carried coffee pots over the other. Coffee pots, underwear, pantyhose, bottled juices. Those destined for the markets carried socks, can openers, diapers, chewing gum. Those destined for the hotel districts carried alpaca sweaters, copper earrings, beaded necklaces, shawls. Each found her place. Each spread out her cloths, readjusted her baby, disgorged her wares.
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Caroline Alethia is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in newspapers, magazines, on radio and in web outlets. She has worked as a technical writer for the United Nations and as journalist in Brussels. She has also taught communications at the college level.