Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Town is Full

Out my window it is dark. I cannot yet see the lake that extends to the horizon. But birds have begun their morning symphony. And, I hear beneath them the faint sound of some one playing a hand drum, probably someone who had to sleep on the beach because, once again, the town is full and there are no spare rooms.

Yesterday evening I heard the bands of Argentines, backpacks on or suitcases in hand, shouting “there are rooms down here, sixty bolivianos per person with private bath,” as I made my way back to my room from an afternoon sitting in a cafe and writing.

I am staying in one of the many hotels that keep rising like mushrooms after a rainfall in this lakeside place. Its population is only around five thousand people. Still, that is double what is was a couple of decades ago. Then the town was mostly low-slung adobe and stucco buildings, though people were already starting to throw up reinforced concrete skeletons of three or four stories to fill in later with dark orange brick. Now, they are five, six, seven stories, and I do not think there is an elevator in the town.

Copacabana has undergone a building boom. Nevertheless, there are still not enough rooms to meet demand during peak periods, like now. It is summer vacation in the Southern Hemisphere, and Copacabana is one of the places to go.

A week ago, Mandy and I were among that hoard looking for rooms. I had misplaced my notebook with phone numbers during my haste to leave for Germany and could not find it when I passed through Utah. I also forgot about summer vacation. It has been decades since I was here in early January.

Still, there would have been no problem, if we had been able to take the first bus from Puno, Peru--a huddled city on the other side of the lake. But I had to stay there to try to get a document sent in time to meet deadline in the United States. Deadlines can be so unforgiving. So we left in the afternoon bus.

The border was congested. And, the Peruvian border police were slowing it down even more by looking for opportunities to make a little extra.

One Columbian had lost the paper “tourist card” given on arrival that must be surrendered upon departure. Loosing it should mean you pay a fine and that is all.

His travel companion had his and got an exit stamp on his passport, while the first guy showed his document and prepared his money for the fine.

“That will cost you five dollars,” the border policeman said. He retained the passport and shuffled through its pages. Then he looked at the companion and said “Let me see your passport.

“Your entry stamp in Lima is not good. This is bad. We have a problem here.”

“How can it be bad? We came in at the airport and they stamped our passports. How can it be bad?” “No it is not properly stamped. This is not acceptable. Look my friends, you help me and I help you.”

In the meantime, the first Colombian had gotten out his five dollars, to pay the fine for loosing his tourist card and held it for the official who snatched it from his hand. “What are we going to do? How are we going to solve this problem? I cannot let you leave the country without recognizing your stamps are bad.”

They wrangled back and forth, no one mentioning an amount, as the long line milled, mostly unaware of the drama in front of them.

“You do not know who you are talking to” the companion said to the official in the ominous and threatening words used throughout Latin America. I am going to get my cell and call my father in Colombia. You will soon hear from his friends in Lima. That will solve this problem.

“But my friend, there is no need for that. Just a little something from you and we can close this issue. Your entry stamps are not right.”

The first Colombian stood blocking the line while the second went to where the bus was waiting and told people he would stay the night there, sleeping on the floor if he had to. This was a moral point, a matter of principle. How could the Peruvians ask for bribes so bluntly. Especially when his papers were all in order. He asked if anyone had a cell he could use, since he had not brought his from Colombia. Nobody did; he went to look for a phone somewhere else.

In the meantime, an Australian got to the front of the line on the Bolivian side and realized he needed his vaccination card. He had stashed it in his luggage which was buried underneath the bus amidst everyone else’s luggage. He asked the driver, in very broken Spanish, if he could get his bag.” “Oh no” the driver spat out, while getting out his key. “I told you all to have all your documents ready. We are already very late. I am supposed to be picking up a load of passengers in Copacabana right now to take them to La Paz. There is not time for this. How could you leave your document in your bag!”

But, the Australian was already burrowing into the luggage hold. I doubt he understood much of what the driver said, though there was no mistaking the tone. After the Australian found his card, closed his bag, and wiggled out of the hold, the driver closed the compartment and locked it, his eyes red with frustration.

He lifted his cell to call the company and tell them he would not be in Copacabana in time for the trip to La Paz, even though there were passengers with us who needed to make the connection. The border was too slow.

So, Mandy and I arrived late in Copacabana and I realized from the congestion the town was probably full. I was a little nervous, just a little bit.

As soon as we arrived in Copacabana, I saw a friend who manages the hotel where the bus stops. In his mid twenties, he is from the rural community where I did my first fieldwork when I was the age he is now.

I was first off the bus and did not worry, yet, about my baggage. I just ran up and said hello to him, gave him an abrazo, a kind of hug, and quickly asked if he had two single rooms available, before any one else on the bus could ask.

“No señor, David, I only have one ...

“Hum ... Let me see; maybe my friend has rooms.”

He called over to a thin and intense looking young man who was standing nearby. “Johnny, do you have two single rooms in your hotel for my friend?”

With our luggage we followed Johnny to the hotel. We had rooms, mine on the sixth floor; many others did not that night. It got worse during the weekend. Even yesterday, people scurried as night started to fall to find rooms and prices rose.

Yesterday, when I got back to my hotel, after sitting for hours and writing, to stow my laptop and read a little before going out for dinner, I saw Johnny, head hung, sitting behind the counter.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.”

“Hola, David. Just till the end of the month I am going to stay here and then I am going to quit. I cannot deal with the suspicion the owner always has.”

Johnny’s eyes moistened slightly with his confession. I looked at him and said “what happened? Why are you upset?”

“It is just the owner. He is always thinking people steal money from him. I am tired of the constant suspicion.

“I am only twenty-seven but I have already managed a multimillion dollar project.

“My community named me their representative to the regional council and we got a large grant from an international agency for development. We divided it up among the different towns and communities on the Lake. We gave every family 389$US in building materials for them to improve their houses. Not a cent was missing from the program. Not a cent.

“I cannot stand that he accuses me constantly of stealing. I am an honest person.”

An Argentine couple, late middle aged, interrupted. “Do you have a different room? One on a lower floor? The climb to the fifth floor almost killed us. Isn’t there an elevator?”

“No. I am sorry but all I have left on lower floors are triple rooms. They cost more.”

I stayed there, at the counter, slowly peeling the shell off some toasted broad beans I had bought while walking back to the hotel. I had felt a hollowness inside and just needed something with protein to snack on. As soon as the Argentines left, I pushed my bag across the counter. “Johnny, would you like some habas?”

That is what they are called here. Johnny took a few and began peeling them.

“That’s how it is, David. The owner doesn’t know how to treat people. Do you know how much he pays me? He only gives me a hundred dollars a month to manage this hotel. We handle much, much more than that every day. So he always is thinking we are stealing. But I do not touch a cent of his money.

“He shouts at us. He yells and swears. That is not a professional way to treat people.”

Two younger Argentines came to the counter and interrupted: “Do you accept credit cards? Does anyone in this town?”

Johnny gave them directions to the two upper scale hotels that take cards and settled back into his chair, as I handed him the bag of habas.

“I used to work in La Paz at a hotel owned by the Crillón company. There, if there was a problem, they did not shout at you, tell you that you were a disgraceful so and so, or threaten you needlessly. They sent you a memo asking you to make corrections. The owner here is just not professional.

“One time my wife saw him yell at me this way. She was stunned. She went up to him and said ‘you should not treat my husband that way. He is a man of respect in our community. It is not proper for you to treat him this way.’”

Another couple, shoulders slumped from the backpacks they were carrying, came to the desk. “Do you have a double room for tonight?”

“No. There are no double rooms. I only have triple rooms left.”

“Will you rent us a triple for the price of a double?”

“No. I can’t do that. The owner will get mad if I do. The triple room is more expensive.”

Despite the added expense, they wearily decided to take the room. Johnny dispatched a teenager to carry their bags up the stairs, before turning back toward me and taking some more habas.

“He has no education, the owner. He just has lots of money. I have been in meetings with engineers and managers from other countries. They did not treat people this way. They were courteous, professional. They were always respectful to one another.

“I can’t stay here anymore. I can’t be treated this way.

“If I can make it, I will stay till the end of the month, so other people are not left hanging. Then I am just going to have to quit. I don’t know what I will do.

“Maybe I will start another business dealing with tourism. I can do that.”

“Are you going to stay in the town, or are you going somewhere else?” I asked.

“I don’t know. But, don’t worry. I will still be here. I don’t know where, but it will be here. I’ll let you know what I am doing. I know I will see you around town.”

The drumming outside is louder. Another person has joined in. But the birds have grown quieter. The sky is now light. Soon, it will be time to get up.

I am supposed to meet Mandy at nine to find out how she is doing. She is no longer staying at this hotel. Instead a group of women have taken her under their wings and have placed her with one of their friends.

We met yesterday in a local restaurant called The Gate of the Sun. It is named after a monolithic monument in the ruins of Tiwanaku, which are at the south end of the lake.

Mandy told me about how she and some of the extended family of cousins had played street soccer the night before. They had pressed two tourists into play, one of whom was very good, she said. Before then she had spent most of the afternoon and evening sitting in one of the family’s stores, crocheting a scarf.

The women are fascinated with her crocheting and want to teach her to knit. While Mandy crocheted, Elisa, the sister who owns the store they were in was knitting, a telenovela, a Latin soap opera, played in the background. They were only interrupted when people would ask for something. “How much is the yogurt?” “Do you have any L and M cigarettes?” “Do you have cans of peas?” “Sell me a bottle of rum and a bottle of orange juice.” ...
As Mandy tells me about her day, she lays out a bag with her crocheting on the table. Doña Natalia, the wife of the family managing the restaurant, sees it when she comes over to say hello.

“Do you know how to knit? Can I see what you are making?”

Mandy told her that she was crocheting and showed her the crochet hooks.

Natalia held up the scarf Mandy was making and looked closely at its workmanship, as her fingers counted each line.

“You are doing good work. It is good to know how to knit. You can make all kinds of things.”

Natalia pointed at her finely knitted sweater and said “like this and much more.”

“How long did it take you to make this?”

“I made it yesterday”

“You are fast. It is good to have work to do.”

This last phrase stuck in my mind. And it still resonates a day later.

People here do keep busy. Especially people from the rural areas.

The drumming grows in intensity. More people have joined. It is developing a rich rhythmic complexity as one beat overlaps another, according to the preference of each person.

A whole group of young tourists, probably either Brazilian or Argentine must have slept on the beach. They are beginning their day.

Already couples and small knots of people, back packs on or dragging suitcases, are probably heading for the wharf. They are probably beginning the line for the first boat to the Island of the Sun. It is definitely morning. Time for me to get busy.

1 comment:

  1. Ah . . . sun and drums sound good to one in the midst of a Utah winter. I've enjoyed being transported!