Pirañas Under Our Feet

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In La Paz, Bolivia, the majority of people live for less than a dollar a day, so the last thing Carrie expected was for an expensive American-made four-wheeler to wait for her outside the main—and only—airport terminal.

As the mostly homegoing wife of a state trooper back in Arizona, and with two kids—one of them with a diagnosis—Carrie wasn’t exactly a stranger to surprises that demanded caution, grit, or both. But this made her hesitate. 

She had expected Julia to be here like she had written. But there was no one who remotely looked like her. Just a mostly empty parking lot and then the monster of a car.

A bubbly young backpacker couple pushed their way past her out into the cold thin air and sharp mountain sun, to be met by a swarm of ‘helpful’ cabbies saluting in broken English, and pointing to handwritten signs on cardboard in dusty car windows, saying “Taxi”.

So not an entirely empty lot, but the hubbub of cabs in various states of disrepair seemed drawn to the airport building like bees to their hive.

Which made the lone black four-wheeler all the more conspicuous.

Not knowing what to do, Carrie distracted herself by looking at the young couple who were in profound negotiations with a gray-haired cabbie, using a mix of English, Spanish, and sign language. 

A bittersweet smile crossed Carrie’s lips. That was me 14 years ago … 

Back then, Julia had been embarrassed she could only offer Carrie coca tea in that tiny hut that had been her home in the tropical forests of the Cochabamba valley. 

Carrie briefly wondered where Julia lived now that she had moved to the capital in the highlands. Almost simultaneously, she suppressed a sting of regret that she herself wasn’t in the airport of Cochabamba right now. 

Julia’s hut had been a home for almost a year for her—a young backpacker running away from the darkness in her life—and Carrie had infinitely better memories of that hut than many of the hotels she had stayed in before and after.

Hotel rooms didn’t make you whole after your best friend in college had committed suicide. 

They were just another kind of prison for the grief you tried to escape from but which always followed you, like a shadow. 

But the creaky bed in Julia’s hut, and the view through the single window to the pensive waters of the Espiritu Santo River, had been a place where the shadow could finally begin to dissolve. 

It had been the beginning of coming back to life for Carrie and moving on, even if that moving on had been to a different kind of prison—married with children and bouncing around between shit jobs or just the daily shitload of laundry. 

However, as long as you didn’t shoot anymore crack into your veins or drank like a sailor or any of the other things, that was a prison she could live with. It was a step up. 

A big step for Carrie Sawyer, now Reese. 

But shi-it, 14 years is a long time ….

She eyed the black car again. 

Its plates looked quite official—as in government-official. But why would Julia be waiting in that car? 

No, it was more likely she was late. Typical. Bolivians, including Julia, were never on time. 

There was a reason they had a whole concept for the phenomenon down here—hora boliviana. Time just moved differently in this part of the world and you had to accept that.

“Señora—taxi?” A hopeful cabbie popped up in front of her, his daredevil grin reminding Carrie of her son. Including the missing teeth.

She waved him away and took a few careful steps down the stairs, swaying to one side because of her suitcase, and feeling the first pangs of headache from being almost 12,000 feet above sea level. And breathing 35 percent less oxygen.

She had to make a decision about that car. She had to power through the throng of cab drivers and get out onto the lonely parking lot and wave. 

Or maybe go back into the terminal? Could she have missed Julia inside? Not likely. The airport was the size of her daughter’s school.

But still, that huge car couldn’t possibly be there for her, could it?

Julia had been active in one of Bolivia’s numerous unions after her coca farmer husband had been killed by police during a demonstration. She posted a lot about the union on Facebook. This year she also shared campaign posts on Facebook every day from MAS – the reigning Movimiento Al Socialismo party—and had quipped about helping a ‘senate member’— just before the recent election in Bolivia. However, she had mostly talked about handing out pamphlets when she and Carrie had found a rare occasion to chat online about it. It seemed preposterous that Julia would ever be in any kind of position to—

And then, a black door opened and a very familiar woman hopped out onto the tarmac.

“Carolina!” Julia almost flew over to the stunned Carrie and caught her in a firm embrace.

“Julia—¿cómo estás?” was all Carrie could say, although she could see Julia, despite a few pounds extra and prominent lines under her eyes, was quite better off than all those years ago. 

Quite a bit …

In fact, her old friend was wearing a jumpsuit that had probably cost more than Carrie’s ticket from Los Angeles. 

“How I am doing, querida? I am doing just great!” Julia’s English was exuberant and with a thick accent. “Especially now you come here!” 

Carrie forced herself to smile. She also forced her memories to readjust. “So … you didn’t lie when you said you had learned English.” 

Julia grinned and made a dismissive wave of her hand. “Only little.”

“Lying or learning English?” Carrie deadpanned. 

She felt so out of it. It was so great seeing Julia again. It really was.

“As government servant, you have to maintain good inter-na-tio-nal relations.” Julia snuck an arm around Carrie’s shoulders and squeezed affectionately, while at the same time steering them both back towards the black car.

“—Hey, you’ll soon speak better English than I speak Spanish.” Carrie blurted.

“Not a chance, amiga ...” Julia replied in Spanish. “Santana!” 

Julia was apparently calling for the driver, who was on his way out. Carrie noticed that his skin was considerably darker than Julia’s. Aymara, she thought and nodded politely to him.

Julia herself was of mixed blood but Santana was clearly from the highlands where many indigenous peoples had their home, in small gray villages on the windswept Altiplano or here in the suburbs of La Paz.

He was a young man, little more than a teenager. When he had exited the car he stood erect, by the front door, his thin shape clear against the azure sky over El Alto Internacionál, but his gaze was neither here nor there. 

“What were you doing?” Julia scolded. “I told you to get out and be ready.”

“I was checking—” Santana started.

“Help our guest with her luggage. Now.”

Carrie frowned but then stopped herself. She handed the driver her suitcase and got into the big car, feeling a bit faint. She wondered if she already had altitude sickness.   

Julia got in beside her. She beamed at Carrie. “Ready to see Bolivia again?”

Carrie smiled tentatively. “Yes.”

Julia knocked on the back of Santana’s seat. “Go.”

Santa put the big car into gear, and Carrie was temporarily pushed back into her seat as they turned and accelerated quickly and somewhat haphazardly out of the airport parking lot.

Her hand instinctively fumbled for her seat belt but she found only the buckle.

Julia noticed. “No te preocupes. It’s a short trip.”

Carrie sighed. “No seatbelts, even in a new car.” Then she put a new smile on, for Julia. “It’s Bolivia, all right.”

Julia grinned. “.”

The car sped out onto the sole highway connecting El Alto airport with La Paz and promptly got stuck in a long line of fuming, honking vehicles of all kinds. That was also Bolivia. Just as Carrie remembered it. 

Yet, she could also see the majesty of the snowcapped Andes mountains and she was finally with Julia again after so many years. 

Carrie felt like her heart was beating once more, after a long-dead time as a housewife in the suburb of an American border town.

Now she was free.

Carrie tried to relax on the seat but found the hard black leather not entirely comfortable. She was already sore from the flight. But it didn’t matter, did it? 

She was here. Julia was here. That was enough.

Carrie noticed Julia was staring at her. “So … am I that different?” she quipped.

Julia shook her head. “You are exactly as I remember you.”

“Only 35 instead of 21.”

Julia made a dismissive gesture. “Ah, what does it matter?”

“It matters,” Carrie said. “And I should have come before. But, you know, the money. Kids …”

“I know!” Julia exclaimed. “But money is okay now—here.” She offered a quick grin, almost looking relieved she had said it.

“I can see that,” Carrie said. “What on Earth has happened to you? Last time we chatted, you told me you handed out flyers in the street for MAS before the election.”

“I did, I did. But then Romero and I, well, we decided we wanted to do more—” Julia was interrupted by a cacophony of cars honking at the same time outside. 

“Can we roll up the window?” Carrie asked. “It’s hard enough to breathe at this altitude.”

“You will get used to it.” Julia knocked on Santana’s chair again. “¡Cierre la ventana!”

He pushed a button that let the half-open window near the passenger seat close entirely.

“So …” Carrie said, daring a breath, “how’s Luis?”

Julia waved her hand at the car window as if there were still some fumes from the cars in the cabin. “Oh, he is at school. He is doing well.”

“Is it a high school?” Carrie asked. 

When she had last seen Luis he had been little more than a toddler. It was a leap, like so many others, that she had to make in her mind and she found it difficult. 

“Si,” Julia said. “And how are your children? How is little Michael?”

The herd of cars around them seemed far away suddenly, their endless wailing muffled.

Carrie cleared her throat. “He’s fine. They are fine. I’ll tell you all about it later, okay?”

“Okay.”

Carrie looked out the window again. “Maybe we should have walked?”

“It will clear soon,” Julia said. 

She was right. Against all odds, the traffic began moving again and after a brief excursion through the desolate neighborhoods of El Alto, the car swung out onto Calle 8 de Mayo and a breathtaking sight filled Carrie’s view. 

Ringed by white-peaked mountains, Bolivia’s capital spread over the entire valley as far as she could see. 

Carrie breathed deeply again, and for once felt she had enough air.

Maybe she didn’t need to go to that hut. Maybe this entire country where she had found life again was enough. 

Maybe she was already home.

*

An hour or so later, many things had indeed become clearer.

Carrie now knew that Julia worked as a personal secretary for senator Romero Gonzales who was 52 and owned a six-room apartment in the posh Sopocachi neighborhood. Julia talked about Romero in every other sentence. Oh, and they had also gotten married, it appeared, and she was really sorry for not having mentioned it but there had been some considerations about the election, his divorce, etcetera. And Julia had been terribly busy.

But not with handing out flyers anymore. Someone else was on that particular assignment.

In fact, everything seemed to go really well for Julia who once had hardly known where her next meal would come from. 

In contrast, Carrie had mostly unpleasant stories to entertain Julia with; extrapolations on issues she had briefly touched on during their infrequent chats online. The marriage to Jon was straining, Michael’s autism diagnosis had been a real shock, Emma was getting into fights at school, and there were no good jobs in sight for Carrie—a college drop-out and former addict. Obviously.

Yeah, a lot had happened in those 14 years since Carrie the tourist had found a lost little toddler named Luis on the big market in Cochabamba and reunited him with his mother, even if she had felt so depressed that day she had decided she would not try to talk to anyone again for the rest of the trip, just be alone.

Things hadn’t worked out that way, and an unlikely friendship had been the result.

And Julia was so full of energy and so excited about everything now. Carrie was excited to see her, too, but there was nothing exciting about how things were at home. 

Why had she not thought more about this? Why had she not thought about how fragmented her stories had been on Facebook these last handful of years? Just as she in reality knew very little about Julia from Julia’s infrequent postings or chats, the other thing was true, too. 

But Julia didn’t seem to mind. She was sorry about Michael, of course, but everything else would ‘work out’, she insisted. Just as it had for her. Carrie’s marriage, jobs, everything.

It was a bombardment. Of Julia’s questions, her child-like optimism about possible solutions to Carrie’s problems, and, of course, the sounds and sights that assaulted the senses on the way through the city; piss-stinking sewers, thousands of tin stalls the size of a stamp with solemn solicitors of everything from candy to llama fetuses, shouting drivers in the micro-busses that plowed into the ubiquitous traffic congestion with death defiance, and above all the mayhem—always the real skyline that was the Andes, silent, majestic, eternal. 

But eventually, it was over. They had arrived at Julia’s new home.

And it was definitely different from a hut made of timber and tin. 

Julia now lived in one of the few skyscrapers that towered over La Paz’s southern districts, its parking lot surrounded by a castle-sized wall adorned with broken glass.

Carrie was shown one of the apartment’s spacious rooms by the maid, who was also Aymara, and who seemed to be the only one at home. 

She excused herself that she was tired and had to rest before dinner, and Julia was very understanding.  

When Carrie finally closed the door to her room, everything, including the capital’s incessant buzzing, had receded to a vague hum. She plumped down on the fluffy bed and searched her handbag for deodorant and some pills for altitude sickness. 

Instead, she found a picture she had had the photographer in Yuma copy from her old negatives. He had thought of it as an ‘interesting archaeological exercise’ now that everything was digital.

Carrie had thought of showing the picture to Julia at dinner, later that evening, when Julia’s husband had returned from work.

It was a picture Carrie had taken of Julia in 2000, with her old camera, one day at the river, after a very long evening. Neither had gotten much sleep, but the world and everything in it had been settled. 

Carrie thought Julia had looked particularly serene that morning, despite the wear and tear from hard living which was already visible in her young face, but most of all in the way she looked at the world. Except in moments like that morning.

Julia had been sitting on a small bridge close to the boat, her naked feet dangling over the water. Carrie had felt secure enough in her Spanish to try a lame joke.

‘¿No le tienes miedo a las pirañas?’

‘There are no pirañas in this river, stupid,’ Julia had replied and her dark eyes had sparkled like the sun glinting in the shadowy water. 

“Are you sure?” Carrie came over and gave Julia a friendly push.

“Absolutely,” Julia said. “And if there were, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Oh, yeah? How so?” Carrie grinned. It was a lovely morning. 

Julia shrugged. “Because didn’t you know, they say pirañas only eat fat, rich people?”

“I’m rich,” said Carrie. “Technically. I mean, I’m from a richer country.”

“You’re not rich,” Julia said. “You said so, yourself. You spent your last money coming here. So we’re equals.”

Carrie put an arm around Julia’s shoulder. “Yes, we are.”

And the water of the Espiritu Santo river flowed under their feet in silence. 

*

Photo by Shyam on Unsplash 

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