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I had already spent more hours attempting — with zero success, I might add — to be awarded the 2013 roseta/decal the police require on your windshield than I had the year before: six hours, to be exact – and yet my time was running out. The deadline was in two days, and after that, well, I might as well kiss my 1978 Jeep adios.
Granted, last year my illustrious motor vehicle — which I had polished to resemble an antique car of worth and then ¿what´s a gal to do for six hours in the December sun? polished again and then moved on to polish the hoods of the other cars in line – only passed because fifteen minutes before close-up time, the police computer croaked. A flurry of perplexity ensued, but Bolivian law enforcement, fine-tuned by history to sense an uprising in the making, knew to whip out the old paper forms. O.K. I could not have predicted that, twenty feet from the target of our ambition, construction workers were heaving sawdust over the fence when our cars passed by, so my efforts to make my Jeep at least look roseta-worthy had gone for naught. But all that mattered at that moment was that the officers were clumsily juggling paper and pencils — and working against the clock to avert a car-owners riot.
So, without even getting to show my brand-new fire extinguisher — and despite that my brights ponied up exactly nada in the realm of lighting — I got the damn roseta.
So when Roseta Time rolled around this year, I rolled my eyes with annoyance – and this was even before I knew that the chassis number scrawled on the pages of my car´s documents was not to be found on said chassis. I learned this only after waiting in line for an hour (and slipping the officer 30 bolivianos due to a horn that had decided to imitate Marcel Marceau´s voice) when an unduly large cluster of black-booted, olive-clad men surrounded my open hood with serious question marks on their foreheads. My plastic folder holding all the files was broken open and searched, and sure enough VJ8J83EEE41672 appeared everywhere on paper but nowhere on metal. A Gogolesque disaster.
Far be it from me to describe how the other five hours were used up searching a means for a number-less chassis to pass the 2013 inspection, but I will reveal that my brilliant idea of hiring a welder to fabricate a VJ8J83EEE41672 plaque was rejected by Fredy the mechanic as the fastest route to getting to know the ex-ministers and ex-judges of the Evo Morales administration, accused of corruption, in the Palmasola slammer. And farther be it from me to tell you that, just the day before, I had learned that, previously unbeknownst, the documents that would grant me the roseta for the Jeep´s natural-gas tanks had been falsified both before my time and under mine own blind eyes.
No. Let us speak now of only the 2013 roseta.
I got wind of a station outside of Quillacollo where twenty Coca-Cola trucks in various states of mechanical tragedy were to be “passed” with no inspection whatsoever, just with a slip under the table of 50 bolivianos.
I think we can agree that Context is Everything. The Mayan calendar provided some big thoughts here in Bolivia, the kind that elsewhere were being tossed about by shamans and New Agers, you know, people on the fringe — but that here were being disseminated from the Palace itself. Before the solstice our Canciller/Secretary of State David Choquehuanca announced: “El 21 de deciembre de 2012 es el fin del egoism, de la división, el 21 de diciembre tiene que ser el fin de Coca Cola, el comienzo del ´mocochinchi,´ del ´wilaparu´”/December 21 is the end of egoism, of division, December 21 has to be the end of Coca-Cola and the beginning of our natural peach and corn drinks.
I was sure this meant that the government was going to surprise us the morning of the southern hemisphere´s longest day with one of its celebrated military take-overs, this time at the bottling factories, and I confess I thought it a worthy plan. But then I got confused. In mid-December I saw that said corporation had sprung for a sixty-foot-tall Christmas tree made of 2.5-liter Coke bottles (all full) in the parking lot at the ritzy supermarket I.C. Norte. Why would a company whose days were numbered spend massive bucks on a holiday ornament? I said to myself.
I got in line behind three ratty-looking Coca-Cola trucks. Just the day before the United Nations had agreed for the first time in history to revise its norms concerning illicit drugs and approve the legality of the coca plant. Strange: all these years campesinos and mineros could not legally chew their own coca grown in their own little plots — while Coca-Cola had held the right as a multinational corporation to extricate tons of the sacred leaves for massive international use in its secret recipe.
At first things at the make-shift “inspection” station were subdued. Drivers sat on neighboring stoops in dour silence, a girl was searching for a lost Chihuahua under the wheels, and dust blew up the street in billows. Then, in a Hundreth Monkey sort of move, everyone got up and walked toward an iron gate up the block, their papers flapping in the breeze. I followed.
Now in the familiarity of a huddle, the drivers made jokes about the deteriorated state of their tires and turning signals, their brake pads and carburetors — and about the fact that they were engaging in an illegal act under legal watch. We were to amass our documents in a particular order, staple them together, and hand them in a stack to a woman at the gate. My God! The cops were not even going to stroll vehicle to vehicle and glance in to see if you had a fire extinguisher!
Then, as if from a puff of smoke, a photographer appeared. Like a gaggle of goslings following the Great Mama, they, I, and the now-found Chihuahua skittered at his ankles from one mastodon of a truck to the next for a snapshot of each license plate and each driver´s mug. Each could go home after his picture was taken, but no, they moved down the line of parked vehicles in a clump of excited camaraderie, smiling and cheering as each truck was crossed off. The tall one with the blazing yellow eyes whispered to me in a throaty voice like a Latin version of Rod Stewart: “Fifty bolivianos.”
“Remember what Choquehuanca said?” I asked as I surreptitiously stuffed the bills into his jeans pocket.
He clamped his eyes on mine like a vinchuca bug on a sleeping vein. “The Coca-Cola corporation is a world economy in itself,” he said wryly.
“Yah, but does it have its own military?”
“The U.S. Marines.”
My photo came out a little different from the solemn shots of the drivers; it shows a beaming norteamericana,“!Estoy muuuuy feliz!” bursting from open mouth and proudly holding up a fire extinguisher –- which, let´s face it, was the only thing on the check list she had to brag about.
If you want the Real Thing, this is it: Bolivian corruption not in the high halls of governance with judges and lawyers at your side, but at street level — and due to the fact that the previous owner of my Jeep had apparently done things as they are done in these parts, I am right in there, doing as is done to get the job done.
I have to admit: standing among the Santa-Claus-red trucks, I felt as triumphant as if I had been awarded el Premio Miguel de Cervantes — not because I had joined in the grand old tradition; no, rather because I had exited with the coveted roseta. I popped Glenn Miller´s “In the Mood” into the Jeep´s stereo, said a quick prayer to Che Guevara that it would start, turned the ignition (successfully), and tore out as fast as an engine on natural gas can tear.
Except for one cola I had downed at the San Francisco premiere of Apocalypse Now, I had’t had a soft drink since 1965. I stopped on Juan de la Rosa for a Coke.
Chellis Glendinning is the author of five books, including When Technology Wounds, Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economyand Chiva: A Village Takes on the Global Heroin Trade. She may be contacted via www.chellisglendinning.org.