In La Paz, I live with an old couple who do not know my name. They are both losing their grip on the order of things, you can tell from the look of distant confusion that flits across their faces when they ask me, for the umpteenth time, ¿tu nombre? To get to my room at the top of their house I have to climb several flights of stairs, and the thin air leaves me gasping for breath. It’s unsettling to stand on the landing with your head spinning, vision blacking in and out, and then to hear a thin wavering voice float up from below: ¿tu nombre? No matter how many times I tell them my name, the question repeats itself, sending a cold electric jolt up my spine: has there been a mistake? Am I allowed to be here? But I have always known myself as an imposter, skirting the edges of an eventual exposure. For years the moment arrived in a recurring dream: I stood at a conference podium reading my thesis to an audience that appeared not to hear me. Even my supervisor’s face was blank. What are you doing here? Your name? Coming now from the bottom of the stairs, the question prods at the raw, flickering heart of my old fear. As if the reckoning I waited for has arrived to meet me in La Paz, Bolivia: the highest city in the world.
High means a sunbaked bowl of a city, all weathered brown clay and deep blue sky. High means cold air and a baking hot sun. I learn to carefully apply SPF50 every morning, and at night I slather Vaseline on my face as an antidote to the total dryness of the air. We are 6000 metres above sea level and I sit on my bed with a greasy face, doing Spanish homework assigned by Franz, who makes his living being patient with gringos. The subjunctive mood brings me down. In Spanish you cannot hedge uncertainty away; you must admit your doubts, hold them up for inspection under the harsh bright sun. Before I left for Bolivia you said, I think we should take a break. It’s too hard to go on like this. I wanted to hide the uncertainty under something large and convenient – love, let’s say – but you wouldn’t let me. And now it’s taking up all the space inside me, pushing everything else out to the edges. Subjunctive Girl. All this unknowing. No sé, I say a hundred times a day, a foolish grin of apology stuck to my face. I don’t know. Lo siento. I’m sorry.
Another thing to feel subjunctive about is my future as an academic. I am here ostensibly to intern at a museum, and to establish contacts for my eventual doctoral research in anthropology. Instead I am wandering the narrow cracked streets every day, up and down past the overflowing market stalls where the cholitas sit, mouths carved in thin unbroken lines of silence. Past the dusty concrete office blocks and the mini-buses that rattle through the crowded streets while the conductors lean out, calling the destination in a hypnotic repeating chant. La Paz is a city where everything seems stacked too high, buildings balancing precariously on slopes that sweep sharply upwards. And I am struggling to navigate so much highness; gasping to fill my soft, greedy lungs with the thin air. One afternoon as I sit alone in the central plaza, hundreds of pigeons fly up at once. As they flutter into a cloud of swirling motion (set theatrically against the Technicolor birthday-cake colours of the government buildings), I feel my heart lurch up against its narrow cage, beset by this sudden tableau that flurries itself out in seconds. A scene you’ll never see, already gone. I could describe it to you: the plaza, the pigeons – la plaza, las palomas – but the words would be clumsy and dead in my mouth. What language could I speak, to make you understand? Where are you at this moment, in the space between the beats of a pigeon’s wing?
I’ve been in La Paz for about a month when the city floods with protesters from Potosí, a mining town in Bolivia’s southern highlands. I’ve never been: it’s the kind of place an anthropologist might go, but not a tourist. As far as I can glean from conversations with Franz and from my attempts to read La Razon, the daily broadsheet, the protesters are occupying La Paz to demand better public infrastructure for Potosí. This is regarded by Bolivians as more or less normal, and life goes on around the occupation. I still walk the streets every day, passing the same roadside stalls, listening to the same chants of the minibus conductors. The city reveals itself to me in stages, in small pockets of the unexpected: the high camp of the cholita wrestling match I attend one bright Sunday afternoon. The delightful absurdity of the rush-hour zebras: adults in full zebra costumes who hold up traffic at pedestrian crossings, to allow people to cross safely. But some rallies in the city centre are dispersed with tear gas, and there are roadblocks in La Paz and on the highway to Potosí. I begin to have nightmares about trying to leave the city – frantic, labyrinthine dreams where I fail over and over to lift my heavy awkward feet from the ground. The central plaza where I saw the pigeons is surrounded now by guards who cradle their weapons impassively. Only weeks ago, I stood for hours in a gathering crowd to see the Pope, a flash of white robes and a glimpse of a waving hand before he disappeared around the corner. A woman near me had brought a bunch of flowers that looked to be from her garden; she flung them at the figure in white as he sped past, but he was already gone. Now the streets are filled again, and the pigeons swirl above the scene, all nervous energy and flutter. Still the Potosí protestors move slowly and steadily, occupying space from one moment to the next. Staying at ground level.
Writing is a way to speak back to the void that will not learn your name; a way to stop yourself from being swallowed by the space in between flying up and landing. In La Paz I keep my journal compulsively, writing in cafes in the dying afternoon light. I think of you and wish you could read my words, find a small imprint of me in the world. And I think of my mother, a lifelong journal-keeper who taught me how to love the written word. My earliest memory is of telling her long, rambling stories that she would faithfully transcribe for me. When I learned how to write for myself, we grew more distant from each other.
In the end my mother returned to words, becoming to me a collection of letters, dissertations and conference papers: everything she got down on paper (somewhat frantically, as though the act of writing could delay the inevitable) before dying at the age of forty-seven. A young woman, in relative terms; an academic at what could have been the height of her career. Now my own fledgling career in academia is beginning, under her immense shadow. Even the journal I keep is an echo of hers, the thin black notebook that documents the year she spent traveling the world alone, just before she met my father. I have read it over and over, looking for clues in her curling handwriting. (Is it an invasion of privacy, to read your mother’s old journal? Or do we keep journals in the secret hope that someone will read them?) As a child I used to beg her to tell me about eating gelato in Italy, only because the opening line of When I was in Italy sent a thrill of glamour and adventure fizzing through me. Now I know that loneliness must have dogged her throughout; that the journal was a way of trying to ward off solitude. Or, perhaps, a way of trying to let solitude in; to learn to live with yourself in a more radical and definite way than before. In Lausanne she’d seen the museum, taken a boat trip on the lake. And then a piece of English graffiti in this French town, she wrote. On a wall was written: “If You Only Knew!”
If you only knew. The message unsettles because it contains a problem we cannot escape: pure knowledge from the future, reverberating back to us as we stand blindly in the past. It is taunting us with what is not there. No sé … Knowledge has to come in real time, which is why it always comes too late. My writing is a clumsy attempt to fix knowledge in place, to establish roots with language and anchor myself to the ground that way. And I think more and more that my ambition – if you could call it that – to be an academic is only this attempt writ large: an anchor against precarity, against the subjunctive, against the weightlessness of being airborne. A life in academia is something I’ve been trained to want. But it’s a wooden thing, an IKEA flat-pack of a wish, assembled from circumstances that fold and overlap. What’s missing is the bolt of energy that animates want into desire; the life-force that sings through us and across the gap we’re on the other side of. The thing that makes us fly.
To get out of La Paz you have to go higher, ever higher, up the sides of the giant valley. Here, too, the city is a container for the surrealist geography of a dream: the wealthy live at low altitude, while the poor peer down at them from the highest rims. The satellite city of El Alto, where the poorest people live, sits above La Paz, and in times of protest the alteños sometimes set up roadblocks to stop vehicles from leaving La Paz. But on the day I go home, all is quiet as my taxi winds its way up the slopes. The protesters have returned to Potosí, having struck a deal with the government after weeks of negotiations. All my efforts with Franz have paid off, and the taxi driver and I have a largely mutually intelligible conversation about the Bolivian educational system. But then we fall silent and I sit in the back seat thinking of you, twisting my fingers in my lap. And I try to take pictures in my mind, remember the last of the high city that’s flowing away from me too quickly, already becoming part of my past; something I’ll describe to you later, when I am home and have fixed myself in place. I’ll tell you about it all: the harsh light and the thin air; the pigeons’ wild flight in the cold afternoon, and the voice that floated upward from below. Mi ciudad esta cambiando … reads the slogan spray-painted on the buildings in El Alto. Changing from what, I wonder, and into what?