Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tourists and Vampires in La Paz

Young, scruffy, and horny, a gaggle of British tourists surrounds me and ignores me while I sit in my corner in a coffee house in downtown La Paz, Bolivia.

When I was here last, in May, a few tourists would appear now and then, but most of the customers were Bolivian professionals. After all, in the old part of town, it is a block from the main plaza where the national government is sited and just down the street from the courts.

The two stories of this adobe building with thick walls and a tile roof were refitted some years ago to make a place for sitting, reading the paper or conversing, and consuming modern drinks. Bolivia did not used to have coffee houses; they had cafes and bars where people could sit for hours over beers, but not places specializing in coffee and pastries. Nevertheless, this is a Bolivian business, a modern Bolivian business, bringing global trends to earth.

I do not think La Paz even has a Starbucks, despite the almost three million people in its metropolitan reach. McDonalds was here briefly but left for the security of the lowlands. Only Burger King remains.

Word of this coffee house must have spread through the tourist underground; it seems too soon for it to have appeared in the guide books. So, more informal means of passing knowledge must be the explanation for the new customer demographics.

People talk; they tell their friends where to go and what to see when they travel. Notes appear online. Places come alive in a fantasy of desire and reality that initially breeds hopes of travel and then bridges tourist experience with the dreams and fiction promoted by the travel industry.

And, voila! In half a year the coffee house has changed. Planners and marketers may try to motivate customers to come to their business. They may calculate demographics, with charts and census figures, and targeted strategies to overcome inertia, but the whispers of one tourist to another in person or in electronic traces can radically change the kinds of people who use a place, no matter the business plan.

Now, instead of overhearing occasional details of Bolivian politics or watching interoffice romances bloom and fade before me, I hear clipped British accents narrating late nights, figuring out the day, and looking for an opening with someone new. Nevertheless, England has a long history of travel and empire which also feeds the tourist underground.

Even here, the British Empire was felt. A story is told; in support of an American businessman who was arrested for breaking Bolivia’s commercial laws, Queen Victoria’s ambassador intervened with Bolivia’s government. He was expelled, supposedly on the back of a donkey. Outraged, Queen Victoria is reported to have ordered the British Navy to bombard the country. When informed Bolivia was landlocked and high in the mountains, she said “From now on Bolivia does not exist for the British Empire” and ordered it stricken from Imperial maps. This story is even now narrated on an official Bolivian webpage. It is part of the country’s official self-image.

Former president and media person, as well as well-published historian, Carlos D. Mesa Gisbert gets the byline for the page’s content. I met him when he and I both were as young as these British tourists. His mother, who is a famous art historian, was invited to speak at the University of Texas in Austin, and I was invited to a dinner in her honor. She came with her sons, one of whom was Carlos, handsome, graceful and intense. Carlos had already studied in Madrid, Spain. Both his, and his mother’s biographies and fame are made in part by travels from La Paz to places like Madrid and Austin.

Despite the story’s implication, the British built the railroads that used to cross the Bolivian highlands and connect it to ports on Lake Titicaca and the Argentine rail system in the south. On the trains mineral and other natural products, such as alpaca wool, could make their way to British ships and then travel out to the world.

In the fifties the railroads became the property of the state, as did the mines. twenty-five years ago they were sold to private interests in a neoliberal fire sale. Now the Bolivian government plans to nationalize the railroads again. But, I will bet the British are still important in exploiting Bolivia’s mineral wealth. In fact, right now, British, French, American, Japanese, Korean and other powers are jockeying to gain access to Bolivia’s lithium resources, reported to be the most vast on earth. They are not just doing this because Bolivia has such vast resources, but because the supply is currently cornered by China which, as a result, has a strategic lock over much modern technology.

Though the tourists’ accents are the same as those in England, despite occasional Spanish words like glitter on their lips, the content of their speech changes with all the local references, though such talk is not unheard of in England. Nonetheless, for some reason the people seem different from their peers at home.

A bit over a month ago I was in England. On the late night train north from London, while I tried to sleep, I overheard men talking about life in Africa. They discussed living in Rhodesia before Mugabe made it Zimbabwe and what they saw as the importance of Whites to the survival of the country. They kept talking about Africa, for hours, and I tried to ignore them to focus on my dreams.

We arrived in Leeds well before dawn, when my next train was to depart for Rochdale. An athletic man in his late thirties, dressed in a suit, was worried about me sitting in the station till dawn. While waiting for his ride from the station, he talked with me and tried to figure out how to help me. (Of course, I thought I was fine.) He worked in London’s financial industry and lived in West Yorkshire, making the commute from London to Leeds several times a week. But he had grown up in China and only came to England to go to university. His world was that of an English school in Hong Kong and he said he would love to return to China.

In Lancashire, I heard about holidays in Spain, Australia, New Zealand and South America. But there is more than holidays and Brits who had experience in the empire. England brought laborers form its colonies and then former colonies to work British industries. It has also imported refugees from resource wars in its former colonies. England is no longer a country whose face is entirely White or native born.

On the train back to London, where I would catch the Eurostar to Brussels, more men sat around me in my afternoon car and discussed who they should talk with in Costa Rica and Ecuador to gain advantage in business.

To me Britain seems a big and complexly tied knot off the coast of Europe whose taught threads stretch throughout the globe, as if the Empire had never been untied.

But here in this cafe, these young Brits seem somehow different. Maybe its just I did not expect, in Bolivia, to have an intense round of British twenty-somethings flirting and giggling everywhere but to me or behind my back, though I can still hear the pulsed rhythms and tight glides of Bolivian Spanish somewhere beyond them.

Elsewhere they did not draw my attention and in Cusco they wouldn’t either. In Cusco there are at least two “Irish Bars”. English accents are not rare and blend with the Australians, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Netherlanders, Frenchmen, and so on. I can sit in Cross Keys, a cafe on the main square, for hours reading and writing while they enter, eat, and leave.

If I got tired of them I could have crossed the square to the Café Ayllu, which was a decades old institution in Cusco. Its clientele were almost entire locals. For some reason it never seemed to draw many tourists, though I loved to sit there. Now it is closed. The Diocese of Cusco owns the building it was in and they decided to not renew its lease, even though it was highly profitable. Instead they have reportedly leased the property to Starbucks so it can join McDonald’s on the main square in the ancient Inca Capital.

In England they did not steal my attention from my reading. For example, a December cloudburst in London pushed me into a conveniently close Starbucks. Students from the London School of Economics and other nearby Universities crowded every table but one, small, awkward one where I sat and read. Bits and pieces of their conversation flirted with my ears, but my book drew me in.

For some reason, in this cafe not too far from where the Bolivian president ordered the British Ambassador to be expelled on a burro’s back, I find it difficult to keep my attention on my reading and writing, with them around me.

They are loud. They are hormonal. They seem to demand attention. These are not working class British youth, but children of class privilege. At least, if I read their accents and clothing correctly.

Still, on holiday in Bolivia, they seem to have moved into a free space where ordinariness evanesces and the freedom of the exotic takes over. They seem less individuals than a herd, as if free from the regulations of life in Britain, where there are cameras on almost every corner. Their individual selves fade into the background and their cliquish, national selves stand out in sharp focus. Beyond the eye in the sky or, perhaps better said, on the wall, they strangely seem generic, generically free.

In the Mediterranean countries British youth are discussed as a problem, with their heavy drinking and unregulated behavior that seems to take over towns. The stories remind me of the craziness in US Mexican border towns, or spring break beaches, where libido and lack of the eye make for intense parties. That, I have not seen here, yet.

This country may not yet be awash in drunken British youths though it drowns in exoticism; local complexity dissolves into a generically exotic sea.

Easy phrases of some place beyond time and logic are common to describe a society that stubbornly refused to accept British power once upon a time and now insists on finding its own path forward, despite its relative weakness on the global stage. In September, 2008 they sent the US ambassador packing for meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs, although he got to fly and did not have to leave town in shame on a donkey. Like Queen Victoria, the US has systematically cut aid to the country to pressure it to come to its “senses”, even if it has not completely erased it from its maps. Still, a year and a half later there is no Ambassador from the United States in Bolivia.

An article about Bolvia’s lithium in Britain’s Guardian newspaper captures the images used to comprehend the country.

there is a problem. Bolivia's socialist government has a habit of clashing with foreign multinationals [...] Foreign companies are afraid to deal with a government that confiscates assets and rips up contracts, said Carlos Alberto López, a former energy minister and consultant with Cambridge Energy Research Associates. ‘Bolivia's ­ideological face does not square with business and commercial realities.’ [...] Pessimists fear a fiasco: carmakers lacking batteries to power electric vehicles and Bolivia, one of the continent's poorest countries, losing an opportunity to develop. President Evo Morales, a former llama herder and trade union leader, has a different fear: that western multinationals will suck the wealth [...] like capitalist vampires. Morales swept to power in 2005 promising to end 500 years of plunder. Lithium is a test case. ‘The government of Bolivia will never give away control of this natural resource,’ he said.

Vampires, llama herders, poverty, irrational fears, socialism, not respecting private property, plunder. Yikes. Bolivia is drowning in such common images of the exotic while I am overwhelmed by British youth in a cafe close to the Presidential Palace.

The exoticist waves that threaten to overwhelm discourse about Bolivia seem so contrary to the ordinariness of everyday life here. Things don’t happen the same way they do at home or in the UK, but they have their routine and regularity. They have their logics.

People here tend to dress more formally than in the United States. Regulators of shine populate the streets and plazas to constantly let you know if they think your shoes require attention.

People may dance across the street through traffic, no matter cross walks and lights, but do not show up at a social event improperly attired.

People struggle to make a living and find free time from the pressures of work, just like at home. They just do so in a place with a different history and different institutions and in a country that has a certain wounded, but still vital pride.

Nevertheless, the exotic floods them and reduces them to cliche. Tourists, with their tales of travel on the information underground, create some of it. But so do travel professionals, and other people who move from place to place and make a living from their motion.

In an book on globalization, the prominent Swedish American anthropologist Jonathan Friedman observes pointedly:

Academics, artists, media ‘intellectuals’ and others who identify themselves as the new ‘travelers’, have been instrumental in the production of discourses [... that] have been employed extensively, sometimes in political projects... (Globalization, the State, and Violence, Rowman Altamira, 2003, p 16)


Perhaps part of the reason the British keep me from paying attention to my writing is that they look so much like me, though different. In their hormonal, exoticist haze they remind me of what a professor in my graduate department at the University of Texas, José Limón, called the erotics of culture. By this he referred to desire becoming a kind of place where power politics are experienced and played out. His book was about the US Mexican border, but I think the idea applies to Bolivia and to its notions of the US and Britain as well.

I particularly love the image of the vampire, current Bolivian president Evo Morales used to refer to external powers. Who of my generation and younger has not been raised on Vampires. Many of us can relate to the conscience stricken Vampires of recent popular culture.

While I prefer Ann Rice’s versions of the Rumanian Count Vlad, the Vampire de jour is Stephanie Meyers’ Edward Cullen, a pale, repressed whisp of an blood sucker. Eros and Thanatos come together with what Foucault so glibly labels biopolitics; if no where else in the person of Cullen père, the vampire/physician of the coastal town of Forks, Washington where the story takes place.

Meyer’s movie is playing in La Paz simultaneously with Avatar, and a documentary called “In Search of Paradise” about Bolivian migrants to Spain. Oddly, all three have the common theme of exploitation and empire.

They are shown in a new theatre. Right at the edge of where the upper city plunges to the elite suburbs a thousand feet below it, the Multicine is a megaplex in the downstairs of one of the unfinished, new skyscrapers that grace Bolivia’s capital. Despite the exoticism of the movie’s images, Bolivia’s youth have their desires and sense of reality formed by media as much as kids in Liverpool or Denver.

Evo, as the president is usually called, could easily have spoken of an indigenous Bolivian exploiter, the kharisiri, who takes fat instead of blood. In both cases the kharisiri and the vampire steal life. Rather than the indigenous kharisiri, who can cause villagers to distrust one an other and even exercise vigilante justice, Evo chose instead the international vampire, of literature and screen, to make his point.

After I could not stand staying in the coffee house another instant, I left and walked around the main square. People in (rural) indigenous and chola (urban indigenous) dress sat feeding pigeons and scarfing ice cream cones beneath monuments to national heroism and glory in classically romantic style. (Not too many decades ago, about the time Carlos, and I were born, and shortly before Evo’s birth, they would not have been allowed in the square.) Afterwards, I walked down the long, skyscraper clad avenue, over a channelized river, that occupies the bottom of the gorge in which La Paz rises. Almost at its end, I came to the Multicine, where I met my friends with whom I am staying, Romy and Juan Carlos.

We were originally going to see the premiere of the documentary “In Search of Pradise” but as we waited in the very long line it soon became obvious we would not get our tickets in time. We started talking about what else we could see. Juan Carlos insisted he wanted to see Sherlock Holmes and would brook no opposition, nevertheless when we got to the ticket counter he had stepped aside so Romy bought tickets to “New Moon.” Juan Carlos was not thrilled to have to see a “chick flick” instead of the ostensibly more “robust”, action-filled Sherlock Holmes.

Though we will return to see the other two films, we entered the darkened theatre and watched the story of a girl in love with a deeply repressed vampire, whose male best friend belonged to a church of werewolves. Though my viewing of the film was deeply infused with my understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism, a different context developed as Romy, Juan Carlos, and I spoke of the film on the long ride in small vans back up the slopes and over the flatland to my friend’s home.

People in their neighborhood want to fall in love. They want an ideal mate, even though, just like at home, the mates may turn out to beasts of one sort or another. One just hopes they are not abusive beasts. Sometimes, even when they claw their mate’s face, the mate cannot find the strength to leave them. They see the buff, handsome side of promise, rather than fanged anger, and hold firmly to their ideals. Both young men and young women live this story. Politics fade to the background in the face of their beloved’s ideal, as told in stories that travel the world; youth and hope spring eternal.


  1. David, this is a gem of a post. Bristling with ideas. Beautifully written. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Scott. It would not leave me alone!