From Parque Monticulo your eyes easily capture a panorama of La Paz. Huge eucalyptus trees adorned with declarations of love frame the crenelated mountains on the horizon. A Sacre-Coeur of rock silhouetted against the summer sky, the yellow teleferico whispering by in the middle distance.
Eyes drop down to the intensely packed houses clinging to every bit of buildable land. Mondrian colours decorate an apartment block injecting primary colours into a sea of brick red. The spread of La Paz stops only where building is impossible. The valley has long since been filled, and El Alto, hundreds of metres higher on the flat Altiplano above La Paz, is the spillover.
A classical fountain, currently dry, sits in the middle of the park, shaded by complex branches of evergreen trees. Birds flutter limb to limb singing their songs into the contemplative afternoon. Andean mountains push skywards, desire manifested in pink and beige and grey-green forests, the white snow on Illimani aristocratically towering above all that surrounds it.
I´ve spent 6 weeks in La Paz in the last two years, not very much time really, and yet I feel at home here. There´s a peace to the place that fits its name.
Street art springs into view everywhere – it is only a matter of seeing it. Walking down from Monticulo I glance at some graffiti on a hoarding by a construction site … “art is everything and for everyone or for nobody” … and then I notice the tag “Mujeres Creando”. Of course. Mujeres Creando – the fearless anarcha-feminists who contribute so much vitality to the spirit of La Paz. And Madie, the always smiling, always friendly fixture of Virgen de los Deseos, the downstairs café of their wonderful casa in Sopocachi where I am once again staying. My little room, with its hard mattress and shared bathroom, is a long way from those predictable hotels in the colonies of consumption where I spent my business days and nights. It feels warm, loving, welcoming. What is true luxury if not this?
I walk into the café and see Maria Galindo, activist extraordinaire, sitting at one of the tables, deep in conversation. Her eyes are aflame like Che Guevara´s in Korda´s iconic photo, broadcasting clarity about a Latino future without macho patriarchy, a future of freedom, electricity buzzing in the air around her.
Freedom. That´s the word. It´s what I feel in La Paz. Even though it´s a city, freedom is right there in my field of vision – the high mountains are no more than an hour away. Wordsworth, writing in the English Lake District not far from where I grew up, found freedom in the mountains and the seas. For me too that´s been a fairly clear thread through much of my adult life.
“Two Voices are there; one is of the sea,
One of the mountains; each a mighty Voice:
In both from age to age thou didst rejoice,
They were thy chosen music, Liberty!”
But what is true for one person is not necessarily true for others. My friend Sylvia has a different response to La Paz. She notices pollution, overcrowding, litter, traffic – none of which is easy to dismiss. She feels an energy and atmosphere in the city that makes her ill at ease.
Like in Baudelaire´s The Double Chamber, both beauty and horror are always present – our perception is all we can go on. What each of us sees is true for us. Our accumulated life experience builds those doors of perception - Roland Barthes´ insight that we each read our own novel regardless of the intent of the author is much more than merely a piece of clever literary criticism. For thousands of years the high Andes have been a place to cleanse one´s doors of perception … and duly cleansed what we see remains relentlessly our personal version of truth. That being the case, isn´t the idea of objective truth a conceit born of scientific reductionism, or the detritus of a world view anchored in religious hierarchy? It hardly matters which.
So today I will sit back and enjoy the subjective truth of my perception of La Paz. I´ll add honey to the camomile tea on the table in front of me, and give thanks for this delightful afternoon, these beautiful people, this gentle city sanctuary, this wonderful life.
“An infinitesimal odour of the most exquisite choice, mingled with a floating humidity, swims in this atmosphere where the drowsing spirit is lulled by the sensations one feels in a hothouse. The abundant muslin flows before the windows and the couch, and spreads out in snowy cascades.
And this perfume of another world, whereof I intoxicated myself with a so perfected sensitiveness; alas its place is taken by an odour of stale tobacco smoke, mingled with I know not what nauseating mustiness. Now one breathes here the rankness of desolation."
The Double Chamber, Baudelaire