Coming to Cochabamba is not a simple business, in any sense. The familial aspects are complex, now more than ever. The primary reason to come was to look after my elderly mother in a period of particular need for her, including her eighty-seventh birthday. No more need be said.
I was born here, but family moves and career moves took me to other parts of the country and then abroad. If my count is right, I have spent a total of eight years living in Cochabamba. Compare that with twenty-three years in the Northeast of England.
There was a time when coming back to this city felt unequivocally like homecoming, even after spending long years in the United Kingdom. Now, to keep this polite, it is not so simple. It is blatantly obvious that I have changed, but, it has to be said, the city has changed more, and any estrangement between it and me is due more to its changes than to mine.
The fertile valley of yore is no longer fertile. Its clear seasons are now all over the place, making the town a far cry from what my journalist father once described as ciudad jardín (garden city), a term that caught on and became common local currency in the 1970s and 1980s. Its tasteful, solid colonial architecture has been replaced by a sprawl of modern, cheap-looking eyesores. Its traffic, once dominated by pedestrians and cyclists, is now the empire of the motor vehicle, with all the environmental results that come with that. The streets have been altered accordingly (“redesigned” would be an overstatement, implying some rational planning), making it very difficult for pedestrians to turn them or to cross them – plainly impossible in some cases. Here, for example – what is the pedestrian to do as the pavement tapers into inexistence and he needs to turn right to cross Cobija Bridge?
One of the traditional features of the population, its social cohesion, is now a thing of the past. With the demographic explosion, you no longer can expect to bump into someone you know in public places, or to work out a new acquaintance’s pedigree from their surname.
Cochabamba is now a town of people who are strangers to each other. This, mixed with the age-old tendency of the locals to be cantankerous, has produced an appalling result: hostility. It is not a welcoming place anymore. At shops, banks, vital service providers, street stalls, in public offices, almost wherever you go, you have to expect unhelpfulness. A notable exception is the catering industry, which has experienced something of a boom and where politeness and even friendliness are the norm.
It would be sad to find myself disgraced for being too critical of my hometown. Better writers than I – Alcides Arguedas, for example – have been reviled for daring to speak their mind on the Cochabamba phenomenon. I should hasten to balance my appraisal with some positives. In spite of the horrid traffic, I have enjoyed many long walks across town. These started as an alternative to dealing with taxi drivers (no – stay positive!), but then they became a habit. The dire warnings about muggings proved unfounded, or I was lucky enough to escape harm. The streets may be full of highly-strung, bellicose drivers, and the pavements frequented by grumpy walkers, and the buildings on both sides of the street may be hard on the eye, but the mild weather and the reward at the end of the walk – good coffee or good company or both, or even a necessary job done – made it worthwhile.
On one of these walks, I found myself tempted to follow Arguedas and find words to describe the average Cochabambino. My list began with “corner-cutting”, then it had “covetous”, “gluttonous”, “impatient”, “insincere”, “short-tempered”, “sly”, “unpunctual”, “treacherous”, “vengeful”, “uncitizenly”, “undisciplined”, “unruly”, “work-shy”, and about there I stopped to catch my breath and to give the negative prefixes, suffixes and composite adjectives a rest. I also baulked at carrying on with what amounted to a diatribe of my own kin. Where did I stand on that scale of misery? Good question. I wrote above that I had changed. Have I changed enough? Am I fit to sit in judgement of a whole population, or even of a representative sample of it? Leaving that tricky question unanswered, I then thought of my friends and family. Where do they fit? Are they all those horrid things? Of course not. They are decent, hard-working, loyal people. Who, then, are the holders of those unlovely traits? Are they an abstraction of negativity, separate from any known individual? If they are an abstraction, they are a popular one, featuring in conversations across the country, especially, of course, in Cochabamba itself. But I fear that there are only too real living examples; I can see their works in the state of the city.
Are there any positive qualities one can identify in the Cochabambino character? There have to be. At their best, they can be somebody like Franklin Anaya (grand-père): a model of citizenship, creativity, generosity, ingenuity and perseverance. A few echelons below that, Cochabambinos can be sensitive, loving, heroic and lovers of the arts, notably music, dance and theatre. They are adaptable to the point of mercuriality, which makes them resilient but also unpredictable in politics. Their affection for their city is blind to sensorial evidence, which could be touching, were it not that it renders them unable or unwilling to improve even glaring imperfections, such as the stench of the river, the chaos of the traffic, the neglect of historical buildings and oh so many more. But let’s get back on track; we are being positive!
If embarked on a listing of Cochabamba positives, I cannot fail to mention the reason why I am writing this in the first place: for all its defects, my hometown gave me shelter when I needed it. Its inexpensive restaurants fed me tasty food. Its cafés – and there is a raft of good new ones – kept me awake with good coffee. Its experts gave me useful advice. Its weather gave me a respite from the harshness of British and Brazilian winters. Friends and relatives gave me their wisdom, knowledge, beauty, affection and support. Cochabamba gave me a sense of belonging when I felt more adrift than ever before. It kept me safe. That I was still unable to make sense of life away from what is, or was, my real life – my loves, my duties – is not the city’s fault. All considered, Cochabamba did its best for me.