Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Brief Undocumented Migrant Phase

Forboding creeps into my heart as the bus nears Copacabaña border crossing. I'm taking a gamble. All the other passengers are European, because Americans are supposed to get visas before entering Bolivia with a two-way plane ticket, but I'm relying on the schmoozing powers that have so magically transported me across many frontiers.

This could be a disaster. I'm an aging fermenting solo yankee dressed like a vagabond (in a group of glowing honeymooning hipster couples), hoping to deftly charm the Bolivian government into bending the rules, so I can stink and slink into their country. Let no woman ever doubt I have more balls than brains.

Our driver parks at the crowded, chaotic, carnivalish port of entry then announces we have 30 minutes to clear immigration or be left to live out our lives in a windblown straw hut with a llama. (Okay, he spoke Quechua, so I've no idea what he said.) I approach immigration with all the inner confidence of Judas approaching the pearly gate, but outwardly I beam with love and enthusiasm for my new brown brothers. This is all gonna end in a hugfest or a penniless hitchhike back the way I came. (My cash is nearly spent and the banks are across the border.)

I address the government official with the submissive demeanor usually helpful in Latin America, but the conversation quickly moves to a back-slapping-and-jokes-about-your-sister tone. My heart starts to beat again. My new bud assures that he can help me out and walks me thru a maze of silly meaningless government paperwork. Just when I think I'm home free, he says, “We only need one more thing: your letter of invitation from a Bolivian citizen.”

Oh, that – my letter of invitation from a Bolivian citizen,” I stammer and stall. “You know, my newest and bestest friend, I'm not sure I actually have that. How essential are those?”

Absolutely required! But there's an internet cafe across the street...” he says, “...where you can make a bogus one,” his nonverbal communication adds. God bless Latin America! Thus, a fictional Bolivian at a fictional address writes a fictional letter to a nonfiction author.

I've never wanted to write fiction, because my life is stranger than, but all writers must have an inspirational muse, so the Bolivian government was mine. Some authors write to better the world; I wrote to avoid farming quinoa and marrying a llama. I no longer get invited to speak at writers' conferences by the important people, but I do get invited to visit countries by nonexistent people. Lyn's mojo: still (mostly) workin'.

I now board another bus where the Europeans have been replaced by indigenous locals and farm animals. When I began traveling many years ago, that would've meant a huge improvement in the smell. However, these young Euro-trekkers appeared to bathe on a regular basis. I'll no longer refer to EU countries as developing nations. Welcome to the civilized world, palefaced brothers. Simply continue the cycle of lather, rinse, repeat and civilized folk of all nations will gladly accept you into their company.

Just when I intend to get serious, a sign announces “Lake Titicaca”. While President Bill Clinton was vacationing in the Grand Tetons range, his staff thought it wiser to say he was visiting the nearby town of Jackson Hole, rather than announce he was enjoying himself in “the big tits,” which the public was coming to understand as the story of his life. I myself would rather visit any size tetons than any man's hole, but whichever syllable of Titicaca reflects your own proclivities, this wet spot will leave you breathless.

Against the snowy jagged backdrop of the Andes lies one of the biggest and bluest expanses of water I've ever seen. Bucket list just got shorter. That's a good thing, because my death suddenly appears imminent: our driver is backing the bus onto a completely-flat, nailed-together, barely-floating gob of planks that Huck Finn would declare unsafe for white trash, black folks, or Injuns to board. The ASPCA wouldn't let you take home a three-legged dog on this contraption.

I'm still trying to convince myself this is not a high-altitude hallucination when the driver gives the passengers one minute to disembark before rolling the other half of the bus onto the-little-raft-that-could. I prepare to leap out the door. Unfortunately, I spot an incapacitated old woman who clearly plans to remain with the mothership. What kind of gentleman/adventurer can't accompany a grandma one time on a dangerous trip she probably makes regularly? My conscience orders my butt to ignore my brain and remain seated.

Soon, we're creaking and rocking back and forth over what looks like a bottomless abyss. There are no perky flight attendants showing me which windows offer emergency exit. The seat cushions cannot be used as a flotation device. This idea was dumber than accepting a ride from Ted Kennedy and likely to produce the same result. After a length of time that seems sufficient for the voyage of Noah's ark, we roll onto dry land. Never ever again! You're on your own granny.

The unspeakable grandeur of the Bolivian countryside gives way to half-built, half-assed government construction projects that extend over a hundred kilometers. The redistribution and modernization plans of President Evo Morales are quite popular in this impoverished zone, with grafitti urging his continued re-election as essential to continued progress. We begin our descent into the steep urban bowl of La Paz.

The phrase “sprawling hellhole” best describes the unplanned and unmaintained slums I encounter on the upper rim of the valley, but the maze of streets winds down to a clean, shiny, hip center, where sparse grafitti warns “Don't re-re-elect the dictator” and pleads “Don't Venezuela us!” I pass thru a roundabout of glistening skyscrapers one might assume to be the business hub, but it turns out to be a cluster of headquarters for the various branches of the military. Is keeping the armed forces so well housed generosity or anti-coup-insurance? Perhaps, the Bolivian military leader I meet with tomorrow knows the answer. Right now, I need some sleep.

At sunrise, I find myself in the uncommon role of a gringo entering the "Bolivian Anti-Imperialist Military Academy". A full-body frisk enhances the awkwardness. After whispering "Mas por favor!" to the frisking cadet, I'm relieved to see his warm grin break out. No matter how hard they try, few Latinos have the capacity to be as uptight as gringos. CIA agents responsible for breaking brownies might try tickling or excessively complementing their sisters before waterboarding. Just a suggestion. Another tip: don't try the "Mas por favor!" on TSA agents. While a group of agents is probing your anal cavity, bearded men wearing burqas and carrying rocket launchers will be boarding your plane. Trust me on this.

General Vinicius also flashes me a warm smile, pours me a cup of coffee, and offers me a chair - all without compromising his perfectly erect bearing. Military strategy is his specialty. We chat about the campaigns of Alexander, Napolean, Cortes, and Patton. We pace and strut the room. We jab fingers at the maps and slash markers across the whiteboards. We argue like alpha males and find commonalities like twin sisters. 

Vinicius shows me photos of his United Nations stint in Sudan. He then bluntly comments, "That was the first time I saw humanity in its default tribal nature, where every man must be prepared to kill or to let his family be raped and tortured. Anyone who believes they're above warfare knows nothing about the real world or knows nothing about real love." Wow!

Just as I prepare to express my appreciation for what I'm learning about Bolivia, Vinicius unhesitantly downloads his boundless admiration for the US economy and modernity and cleanliness and godliness, until I feel compelled to weakly defend my love for Latin America. (If only a few US journalists could love their country as much as this Bolivian does.) I have no desire to rain on his American Dream parade. While not many desperate Irishmen found gold in the Yukon, people sometimes need a vision of the promised land. Still, I strongly encourage folks to seek out the good and find contentment where you are, until you're somewhere else. Gratitude is the secret of happiness - not getting everything you want.

On one point the general and I find absolute agreement: between lazy souless savages who supply drugs to spoiled spiritually-void gringos and the syrupy effeminate altar boys produced by the Catholic Church, Latin America could use more strong moral men who would neither start a fight nor run from the primal duty to defend their family. The noble warrior concept sometimes over-admired in US tradition could be a real asset in Latin American chaos. The Bible puts bullies and cowards in the same list of sins, because both enable the evil of this world. I personally refuse to be bullied into attending anti-bullying seminars unless such balance is respected. Both alpha-males and beta-babes contribute to the greator good, but thugs and wimps do not.

Outside the academy, I board the cable car transit line that dangles on a thin wire high above La Paz. There may not be a more beautiful ride anywhere. The arid mountains and deep canyons circling and traversing La Paz are cracked and rippled sculptures resembling backbones on dinosaur fossils. This silent glide above the top of the human world feels like a premature foray into heaven. It's tempting to want to stay. Even the panorama below that reduces men to ants hollers out how perfect it all was before the great I AM relinquished much control to the not-so-great WE ARE.

Yet, the heavens desire us to have compassion for other ants, attempting to do good in this world of rape, war, apathy, and cowardice. Who am I to turn up my nose at my HQ-assigned mission? So, I depart the heavens and return to earth, smiling at the miserable government bureaucrat and beloved child of God who barks out that I should watch my step. On life's brief fragile commute toward the heavens dangling by a thin line, so should we all.

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