Rafael’s car was parked at the dock, and we drove for hours, stopping along the way for meals, coffee, or bathroom breaks, or to take in the landscape. The road was in poor condition, and we had to slow down often for bullock carts. The Andes were forbidding, snow-covered, and the altitude seemed to have stunted or killed most vegetation. The landscape was brown and bare.
Rafael said he grew up in Manhattan—his mother was from Bolivia, his father, American.
“My dad was a priest,” he said. “He was young when the church sent him here… He was a Maryknoll priest, you know, Liberation theology, trying to help the poor, that sort of thing. But he was young and full of piss and vinegar in spite of his vows of celibacy, so… he fell in love with my mom… left the priesthood and married her. They always claimed he left the church first, then fell in love with her, I guess they didn’t want to make mom feel that she was responsible for his fall from grace, but I’m a romantic, I guess, so I choose to believe he fell in love with her, renounced his vows, and took her in his arms. Whatever the truth is, they moved to New York and had a bunch of kids—I’m the oldest. He always told me if I came down here to visit my relatives, I’d fall in love, and damn if he wasn’t right, you know?”
Just before sunset we arrived at a large house with a view of La Paz. Rafael’s wife, Maria Magdalena – a slight, lovely woman with Inca and European features – greeted me warmly and casually, as if used to this, clearly not the first time he’d invited someone home.
Rafael and I sat in a room that was den and library: there was a record player, hundreds of albums along the walls, and many books in bookcases. He put on a Thelonious Monk record.
I went over to the bookcases, which reached close to the ceiling, and touched the books’ spines, noticing many of the same authors I and my friends read: Henry Miller, J. D. Salinger, Robert Heinlein, Ernest Hemingway… it’s as if these volumes, lined up vertically in bookcases and inside our brains, were sentinels of shared identity.
A few minutes later, a male servant brought yerba mate that we drank in the local manner: pouring boiled water from a kettle into a metal-rimmed gourd stuffed with dried yerba tealeaves. We sipped from the same metal straw, handing the gourd back and forth, a gurgling noise, when sipping from the straw, alerting us when it was time to add more hot water. Drinking yerba mate felt like an act of bonding, like sharing a joint, which we also did.
I looked around: large colorful paintings on the walls – original artwork, not reproductions – glass cabinets displaying sculpture, large tight-weave carpets covering a handsome tiled floor, a coffee table made of thick burl lacquered to a fare-thee-well. The house was big and well made, its contents expensive and in good taste. Rafael had either inherited a fortune, or…
“I have a cocaine factory,” he said, reading my thoughts. “That’s how I make a living. We bring in the coca leaf harvest from different plantations; the people that work for me turn it into powdered cocaine. Dealers fly in and buy it wholesale, so they smuggle it across borders. They have their mules, their ships, you know. What happens after I sell it isn’t any of my business.”
“No risk for you?”
“I pay off the locals, including police chief, judges, mayor, and the underlings. I provide income for lots of people. It helps that I married a woman who’s from here. Oh, and I throw parties and they all come with their wives and girlfriends – sometimes with both – and drink my expensive booze. I have a shindig like that coming up this weekend. You’ll be here for that, right?”
I nodded, pursing my lips downward, congratulating him on his enterprising spirit.