Country Focus: Bolivia
By Juan de Recacoechea
Translated by Adrian Althoff
Originally published as Altiplano Express by Alfaguara in 2000.
My edition: Akashic Books, 2009. 172 pgs.
Acclaim: de Recacoechea won Bolivia’s National Book Prize
On the train from La Paz, Bolivia to Arica, Chile in 1952, Ricardo Beintogoitia hob nobs with a motley crew of train passengers who all have one thing in common – they have been screwed over by Nazario Alderete, a wealthy mine owner on his honeymoon with Gulietta, a woman less than half his age. Hoping for a two-night stand, Ricardo pursues the unhappily married girl with the persistence and naivete of the 18-year-old that he is. Gulietta turns out to more cutthroat than cute and Ricardo winds up in over his head. Meanwhile, the other passengers – including a professional poker player, a dapper congressman, the owner of a cabaret, a famous madam, a Russian Jewish banker and a beefy Irish railroad inspector – set up a poker game that will enable them to get their revenge on Alderete.
Poker games, horny teens, revenge, murder and de Recacoechea’s hardboiled writing style all contribute to the book’s inherent masculinity. Suspenseful, short and fast-paced, Andean Express could easily be turned into a movie script; the rapid-fire dialogue and well-drawn, eccentric characters would be perfect fodder for the Coen brothers. That the author populated his story with as many immigrants as natives is a reminder that every nation is a conglomeration of people from elsewhere.
Andean Express is understandably short on Bolivian culture and history. However, de Racacoechea does includes frequent references to both the class and political divisions of the time, including the difficulty of being accepted into the upper echelons of society (and keeping your place there) and the controversial ascension of the leftist Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario.
In my book, or what Bolivia means to me and maybe you, too
L.A. high school + Bolivian teacher = AP testing success
Math was always my worst subject and I only made it as far as pre-calculus, but that didn’t stop me from being inspired by Jaime Escalante, the math teacher who proved that inner city kids could pass AP exams.
Born and raised in La Paz, Escalante taught at three top-rated Bolivian schools before he emigrated to Los Angeles in 1963. At 33 years old, he took a job mopping floors and began learning English. Soon he was taking night classes to earn an associate’s degree in math and physics. He went on to receive a scholarship to Cal State Los Angeles, where he graduated with a teaching certificate. In 1974, he quit his job as an electronics technician (and took a pay cut) to begin teaching math at Garfield High School in East L.A. To find out how he turned his reluctant students on to calculus, watch the movie Stand and Deliver.
Hee. Hee. Titi! Caca!
I first heard about Lake Titicaca from Donald Duck, who starred in a travelogue-y cartoon called “Lake Titicaca”. Situated on the borders of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest commercially navigable lake at 12,500 feet above sea level. The word Titicaca, which has Quechua and Aymara origins, translates as “rock puma”, not “booby poop”.