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Tuesday, 01 January 2013

Beware the Bolivian Armada

Written by Peter Selman
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“Little gringo,” says Aurelio, “You’re marking the Big Chief”. 


The Big Chief is Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President. I’m the little gringo, a scruffy backpacker who’s been kicking around the Sun Island for a few days. Aurelio, the captain, is pencilling me in to mark him because, at five foot ten, I’m the tallest member of the scratch football team being assembled for a match to promote tourism on Lake Titicaca’s prettiest island. We’re representing the Sun Islanders against members of the Bolivian congress.


“The game is being screened on national TV,” Aurelio adds.  


Climbing up a flight of stairs at 12,500 feet is difficult enough, let alone playing football against a man who, in his younger days, represented a Bolivian second division team. 


“Not long ago,” Aurelio continues, “Morales poleaxed an opponent with a knee to the crotch during a charity match.”


“Really?” I reply anxiously.


“Yep. He said afterwards the opponent was a CIA spy sent to antagonize him.” 


Would Morales think the same about me?


Perhaps more worryingly, I speak Spanish with a thick Chilean accent after studying in Santiago. Bolivia is one of South America’s two land-locked countries, and lost its Pacific coastline during an ill-fated war with Chile in the late nineteenth century. Morales has recently been making vociferous claims for his southern neighbors to return Bolivia’s access to the ocean, and relations between the two countries are strained at the best of times. 





In anticipation of the eventual return of her coastline, Bolivia maintains a Navy, which operates on Lake Titicaca and in jungle towns such as Rurrenabaque. 


“Not only will you meet the President, but you’ll see a rare Bolivian naval excursion,” Aurelio proudly tells me, as we gather alongside a few hundred islanders above a steep Inca staircase overlooking the small bay.


“I’ve only seen two before, and I’m 34.”


The world’s highest navigable lake glistens like sapphire, and the snowy peaks of the Royal Range shine in vivid, transparent light. Donkeys graze on amber grass alongside llamas in terraced pastures. A deep-set Andean lady in a bowler hat, with rugged dark-brown skin and a silent baby wrapped in a colorful shawl slung over her back, tries to sell me a postcard. 


A flotilla of sea-worthy vessels, seemingly transporting the whole congress, approaches the island with great ceremony and pomp. A brass band starts up, and local girls clad in carnival costume dance by the tiny jetty, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Big Chief.


Unfortunately, the Naval vessels, due to their size, cannot enter the shallow harbor and dock. It takes the underworked marines nearly two hours to find a solution to this logistical problem, by which time the President and his entourage – their TV slot having passed - lose their appetite for football, and go for lunch instead. 


“Oh well,” Aurelio sighs with disappointment. He then smiles, “At least the Big Chief won’t have the opportunity to inflict his trademark injury on you.”  



©Peter Selman



Last modified on Friday, 18 January 2013