Translation: A Trip to La Paz

Essay by HEBE UHART

Translated from the Spanish by ANNA VILNER

Essay appears in both Spanish and English.

Translator’s Note

Hebe Uhart’s “A Trip to La Paz” is delightfully misleading in that we never arrive at our destination; we never see the city that touches the clouds. This essay is concerned with a different kind of beauty—the getting there, the buzzing potential of travel. It encapsulates why we embark on grueling car rides, on flights, on long train journeys, in the first place.

At the outset, we encounter a young Uhart traveling abroad for the first time. She is with her elegant older friend Julia, a girl who can’t be bothered to come down from her top bunk and who “[plucks] invisible hairs like a queen exiled from her country.” Our narrator, too restless to stay with her, abandons the cabin repeatedly to wander the train. The events that follow, including a run-in with a nomadic priest and two Peruvian brothers, are fleeting moments in the life of our young speaker. But what do these moments amount to?

Perhaps we might look toward Uhart’s later crónicas to understand these seemingly disparate events. This is someone who knew how to travel, how to really observe and listen to those around her, in Italy, Mexico, Paraguay, and above all, in her native Argentina. “A Trip to La Paz” is a precursor, in many ways, to the collections of travelogues that Uhart would publish between 2012 to 2018. It contains the typical elements of an Uhart narrative: her careful attention to people’s movements and speech, her humorous observations.

First published as a short story in Un día cualquiera, then as an essay in Viajera Crónica, “A Trip to La Paz” is a prime example of the fluidity with which Uhart moved between fiction and nonfiction, and the difficulty that comes with pinning down her work. She was a writer who captured the essence of things—the restlessness of youth and its inability to yield, the sensation of “experiencing and forgetting in the same breath.” What a gift, especially now, that we have Uhart’s writing to remind us to look back on our travels. She helps us remember those small, seemingly trivial details about people, and to learn from the things they said to us.

—Anna Vilner

A Trip to La Paz

When I was twenty years old, I went abroad for the first time; the train to La Paz took three days and it was easy to meet people on board. I went with Julia Leguizamón, who was a few years older than I was. To me, she was the essence of mystery and refined intelligence—qualities I lacked. She had an air of Jeanne Moreau about her and was always lounging on her bunk bed. When she did come down it was as if she had no choice but to do so, as if the world was oppressing her with its tedious demands. She said the most clever and fascinating things without glancing away from her little mirror and plucked invisible hairs like a queen exiled from her country; left without a servant to take care of such inferior chores, she was eternally humiliated to be fending for herself. I admired how naturally she expressed her ideas (revelations that I would’ve announced to the whole train) and for how she reflected on her mysterious past. Once we passed a café I wanted to go into.

“Not this one,” she said. “It’s haunted.”

I took the statement literally. “Does she actually believe in ghosts?” I thought, and said something, timidly, to that effect. She clarified that she meant it symbolically and I didn’t ask anything more. It wasn’t the right time.

She didn’t roam the train with me, while I took several routes, several times per day, looking at my reflection in the windows as I walked. I wore a red and white striped T-shirt with jeans; it was my uniform, and roaming the train was a kind of mission—the train called to me. The first day of the trip, I met two Peruvian guys who studied medicine in Buenos Aires and were heading home for the holidays. I must have told them which cabin we were in, since Julia never left; that way the older brother could chat with her and the younger one, who was my age, could stay with me. He reminded me of a dark-skinned version of my brother, and it occurred to me how extraordinary it would be if my brother could change colors instead of always being the same monotonous skin tone. He told me he was the descendant of an Inca prince (I later verified that every self-respecting Peruvian who looks the part descends from an Inca prince), but I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. After so much talk of the Inca Empire, of Argentina and Peru, he invited me to sit on his lap (we were in a narrow corridor of the train and he was sitting on a sort of stool in the corner). My response to this flirtation was to walk away quickly, to bound through the cabins as if nothing had happened. Julia, in her own way, had started chatting with the older brother. He was on the bottom bunk and she was lounging above him, high and unreachable like a queen. I didn’t catch much of what they said, because I was used to kids being excluded from adult conversations, but she believed her words and wisdom should be denied no one; despite her lying on the bed, it was clear that the whole situation was respectful, and that the Peruvian considered her to be a fountain of wisdom too. By the second day, the brothers’ presence was more sporadic, because one must have said to the other: “All talk and no action.”

While roaming the end of the train, I found Father Werner in second class, surrounded by countless baskets and boxes. I was ten the last time I saw him, but he looked at me as though it had been only yesterday. Back then, when he was the assigned priest of Moreno, town gossips said he had been exiled from his former church. He was known for his peculiar habits: to reach the altar more quickly, and to avoid traversing the room where the sacristan slept, he made a breach in the other wall and would enter bowing, his ornaments in hand. He lived off bananas and chocolate, which he would eat while riding his bicycle everywhere, so he wouldn’t waste any time. When my brother was twelve or thirteen, he stole money from the house and gave it to Father Werner—it was for some experiments he was conducting by the riverbanks to find a cure for cancer. While he was down there, he would occasionally study the flora and fauna as well. He visited us at home one day and told my mom the story of how he escaped Nazi Germany. He said he had joined a cycling race, disguised as one of them. If he really did escape as a cyclist, I wondered, where did he put his clothes and suitcase? Every traveler has a suitcase, but it seemed that those who fled the war were different from the rest of us. My family thought of him as the hero of a Greek tragedy, and we were like the chorus watching him with reproach, admiration, and awe. He dipped a vanilla cookie into a glass of liqueur while he told his incredible story and drank the whole concoction down just like that. He probably thought that everything mixed up in the stomach and that as long as it wasn’t poison, it was edible. But these were people who lived through the war, so of course they were different. My brother was forgiven for taking the money; in the end, it had been for a noble cause. Some said Father Werner was banished from Moreno because he let his parishioners wear shorts to mass. So they sent him to another town, where no one looked at their neighbor in church. They would listen to the service intently, even if there happened to be an elephant beside them. So, what a surprise it was to find Father Werner in second class among a group of Qulla, sitting on a slatted wooden bench and surrounded by baskets. Not even a blink when he saw me after ten years, as if he had been expecting me. He asked if I was traveling in the sleeper and I said yes, which made me feel a bit awkward since he, a priest, was traveling in second class with so many boxes in tow. He asked if he could store his boxes in our room. I told him I had to ask my travel companion. Right then, the train stopped for a long while and Julia got out because her legs were cramping (unlike me, she only moved when there was an urgent need to do so). And in no time at all, Father Werner appeared beside us, surrounded by his boxes. I thought about what he might be carrying, if he was moving—seeing as he was always on the move—or if he might have chickens or gold with him. Personally, I didn’t want him to put those boxes and baskets in our room. What if the nomadic priest had dirty robes? (Cleanliness did not seem to be his specialty.) And what if the whole room began to reek? It’s not that I noticed any grime on him, nothing was visible on him, it wasn’t possible to discern if he was clean or dirty. Julia, gesturing like an empress who couldn’t be bothered by something as trivial as boxes, gave him permission to put them in our room. On the one hand, I admired someone so elegantly generous, and, on the other, I didn’t tell her what I knew about the Father, because something inexplicable told me that doing so might have gotten in the way of his mission. Those boxes would be an obstacle to my train excursions—not a problem for her, considering she came down from her bunk about once a year. But now the train was stopped and we were talking to him on the platform. He took out a sort of pendulum—he said that it measured positive energy—and swung it equally in front of our chests. I didn’t trust the device and I looked at it how Indians first looked at the compass, which they called the “dizzy needle.” When I had finally given up on trying to understand that man (it’s impossible to understand someone who is capable of anything), he began talking about hunting chinchillas. He made it seem like it was a hypothetical adventure and I didn’t know if he was going to hunt them, if we would hunt them for him, or if we would all go hunting together. It was like this: first you had to get in with an Indian who knew the land and how to avoid threats and hindrances like weather, vermin, and the law. I don’t know at what point or from where, but he took out a beautiful book about chinchilla breeding that captivated Julia, as if she had spent her whole life hunting critters. The book hadn’t come from one of the baskets and this was another peculiarity of his: all of a sudden, some topic or object would appear and then disappear. Did Father Werner offer books on chinchillas in the same way he offered holy cards or the bananas and chocolate of his diet? It was clear he won over disciples, first my brother and now Julia. Once we crossed the border he disappeared without a trace. I don’t know exactly when he took the boxes from our room. I continued roaming the train, one end to the other, in my jeans and red and white striped shirt. I needed a break, so I sat down in front of a young woman and her baby in second class. The woman was wearing a worn-out, smoky-blue suit and carried a purse of the same color. She was in heels. Her outfit seemed inappropriate for the journey and I felt like the superior tourist. We smiled at each other. Her smile was cautious, as if she’d be ashamed to widen it too much. Her purse, her suit, and the child she was holding were all immaculately clean (the child’s dark skin was gleaming, just like his little shoes). Something in that incongruity between the sad, worn-out shade of blue and her cleanliness interested me, and we began to talk. She was a teacher like I was and taught classes in a public school on the outskirts of La Paz. She told me that the school couldn’t afford chairs for the students and that they sat on tree trunks; chickens would circle nearby and distract the kids. They didn’t have a map, a chalkboard, or anything. “Meanwhile private schools,” she said, “have every luxury there is.” I quit judging her inappropriate outfit. When she spoke, she was overcome by a kind of indignation that made me see her dignity. The conversation became more fluid after that. She took a chicken breast from her bag and cut it up into small pieces for the child.

“Eat, honey,” she said.

Again I thought it was inappropriate to bring chicken on such a long trip (we were at the border and she was going to La Paz); but she sliced it so carefully that I changed my mind—it was fine to eat chicken on the train after all. I began to think about our similarities and differences. Both of us were teachers (I was just starting out), but while she lived off her poor salary, I spent mine on travel and buying whatever bullshit caught my eye. I didn’t plan on being a teacher for the rest of my life, and, what’s more, I taught at a school that had everything paid for by the government. I didn’t want to improve anything at my school; I’d rather have burned it to the ground because the principal had it in for me. The way she hounded me was unbearable: she’d scolded me twice already for putting my briefcase on the desk. This woman, on the other hand, requested that the authorities send her maps, books, benches, and milk for her students. We had barely crossed the border when she took out a little Bolivian flag and gave it to him.

“Say, Viva Bolivia, son.”

She, the child, and I said, “Viva Bolivia” and her smile widened sadly. It was like a gift for me.

I wasn’t the least bit politicized back then; I didn’t even read the newspaper. I went back to my room and forgot about her with the characteristic indifference of young people to experience and forget in the same instant. The encounter with her was interesting, like the ones with Father Werner or the Peruvian brothers. But there were so many more to come! Years later, I began to read literature about dependence and liberation, about spears and flames; in short, everything that was happening in the world. I read with the passion of the enlightened, like I had finally found my place. Of course I am left with only a general idea of everything I read, but I’ve never been able to forget the Bolivian teacher, not for all these years.

Un viaje a La Paz

Cuando tenía veinte años hice mi primer viaje al exterior: fui en tren a La Paz, tardamos tres días en llegar y se podía hacer sociabilidad dentro del tren. Yo fui con Julia Leguizamón, que tenía unos años más que yo. Para mí ella era el colmo del misterio y de la sofisticación intelectual, algo de lo que yo carecía. Tenía un aire a Jeanne Moreau, estaba siempre recostada en la cama del camarote y, si salía, era como si no tuviera más remedio que hacerlo, como si el pesado mundo le impusiera unas obligaciones agobiantes. Los razonamientos más agudos y fascinantes salían de sus labios sin que ella dejara de observarse en un espejito; se depilaba los pelos invisibles con aire de reina desterrada que se quedó sin criada para esas tareas inferiores, y como si estuviera humillada, permanentemente, por esa situación. Yo la admiraba por la naturalidad con que enunciaba sus razonamientos que para mí eran descubrimientos (yo los hubiera proclamado por todo el tren) y, también, por la forma de procesar su pasado desconocido para mí. Una vez pasábamos por un café al que yo quería entrar. Ella dijo: “Aquí no, hay fantasmas”. Yo entendi eso de modo literal y pensé: “¿Creerá en fantasmas?”. Dije algo al respecto, tímidamente, y me dio a entender que el asunto era simbólico, pero no me atreví a preguntar nada más. No daba lugar.

Ella no me acompañaba en mis correrías por el tren, yo hacía varias travesías a todo lo largo, varias veces al día, y me miraba en los vidrios de las ventanillas, iba con vaqueros y mi remera a rayas rojas y blancas; era mi uniforme, y recorrer el tren era como una misión, el tren me llamaba. El primer día de viaje, encontré a dos muchachos peruanos que estudiaban Medicina en Buenos Aires y volvían a su casa por las vacaciones. Yo les debo haber dicho dónde nos domiciliábamos en el tren porque Julia no bajaba, así fue como el mayor de los hermanos charlaba con Julia y el más chico, de mi edad, conmigo. Era muy parecido a mi hermano pero en morocho, y enseguida pensé en qué extraordinario sería que mi hermano se transformara en morocho, para no quedar siempre del mismo monótono color. Él me dijo que era descendiente de un príncipe inca (después comprobé que todo peruano que se precie y tenga cierta pinta desciende de un príncipe inca), pero no sabía si creerle o no. Tanto hablar del incario, de la Argentina y del Perú lo llevó a pedirme que me sentara sobre sus rodillas (estábamos en un ancho pasillo del tren y el sentado en una especie de asientito que había en un rincón). Yo, ante esa insinuación, salí caminando ligerito por los coches e hice de cuenta que no había pasado nada. De diferente forma, Julia entró a charlar con el hermano mayor; él se sentaba en la cama de abajo del camarote y ella, alta e inalcanzable como una reina, se recostaba en la de arriba. No pude escuchar mucho de lo que decían, porque estaba acostumbrada a que los chicos no escuchan las conversaciones de los mayores, pero ella tenía la actitud de que la palabra y la sabiduría no se le niegan a nadie y, a pesar de estar recostada, toda la situación era de mucho respeto y se ve que para el peruano ella también era una fuente de sabiduría. Pero, al segundo día, la presencia de los peruanos se hizo más intermitente porque deben haberse dicho: “Mucho palique y poco pique”.

En una correría posterior por el tren, encontré al padre Werner, que estaba en segunda clase rodeado de innumerables canastas y cajas; yo lo había dejado de ver a los diez años, pero me miró como si me hubiera visto ayer. Él había sido cura teniente de Moreno (las malas lenguas decían que había llegado castigado al pueblo) y tenía costumbres singulares. Para llegar más pronto al altar, y porque debía atravesar la pieza donde dormía el sacristán, había hecho un boquete del otro lado y entraba agachado, con los ornamentos en la mano. Se alimentaba solo de bananas y chocolate, como comía mientras iba en bicicleta por todos lados, así no perdía tiempo en comer. Cuando mi hermano tenía doce o trece años, sacó plata de casa para darle al padre Werner: era para unos experimentos que hacía para curar el cáncer, a la orilla del río. De paso, ya que estaba cerca del río, estudiaba la flora y la fauna. Una vez vino de visita a mi casa y le contaba a mi mama como se había escapado de Alemania bajo el gobierno nazi; dijo que se unió a una carrera de ciclistas, disfrazado de tal. Y, yo pensaba, si se escapó como corredor, ¿dónde estaban su ropa y su valija? Todos los viajeros llevan valija, pero se ve que esa gente venida de la guerra es distinta de todos los demás. En mi casa, lo mirábamos como mira al héroe de la tragedia griega el coro, con reprobación, admiración, y asombro. Mientras contaba su asombrosa aventura, ensopaba una vainilla en una copita de licor y tragaba todo eso junto con la indiscriminación del químico que era, debía decirse que todo se mezcla en el estómago y todo lo que no es veneno es comida. Pero era gente que venía de la guerra que, como se sabe, es gente distinta. A mi hermano le perdonaron que sacara dinero de casa, finalmente era para un fin noble. La gente decía que se fue castigado de Moreno porque dejó entrar a los fieles en la iglesia con short, y lo mandaron a un municipio donde nadie miraba al vecino en la iglesia: escuchaban la misa aunque tuvieran de vecino a un elefante sentado. ¿Y quién estaba en la segunda del tren, rodeado de collas, sentado en un banco de madera con listones, rodeado de canastas? El padre Werner. Ni se inmutó cuando me vio después de diez años, como si hubiera estado esperándome. Me preguntó si iba en camarote y le dije que sí, un poco incómoda por el hecho de que un sacerdote viajara en segunda con ese incordio de las cajas. Me preguntó si podía poner las cajas en el camarote, le dije que iba a consultarle a mi compañera de viaje. Justo se paró el tren un rato largo y Julia se bajó al andén porque se le acalambraban las piernas (ella se movía siempre por motivos urgentes y por necesidades impostergables, no como yo). Y, ni corto ni perezoso, ya estaba el padre Werner en el andén rodeado de cajas, junto a nosotras. Pensé qué llevaría con tanto bulto, si estaría por mudarse (viendo bien, él se mudaba mucho), pero tambien podria llevar oro o gallinas. A mí no me gustaba que pusiera esas cajas y canastas en el camarote. Y si llevaba unas sotanas sucias de cura nómade? (La limpieza no parecía una vocación suya.) ¿Y si todo se llenaba de olor? No es que tuviera una mugre visible, nada era visible en él, ni siquiera se podía saber si estaba sucio o limpio, pero Julia, con un gesto de emperatriz a la que un detalle tan nimio como el de las cajas la deja sin cuidado, le dio permiso para ponerlas. Por un lado, yo admiraba a una persona tan elegantemente generosa y, por otro, no le conté que sabía del padre, porque algo oscuro me decía que podía perjudicarlo a él en su misión. Esas cajas obstaculizaban el paso para mis excursiones por el tren, ella qué viva, bajaba de su cama de arriba una vez por año. Pero ahora estábamos con el tren parado, hablando con él en el andén. Entonces sacó una especie de péndulo –dijo que medía la energía positiva– y lo hizo oscilar a la altura del corazón de los tres, equitativamente. Yo a esa altura le tenía desconfianza a ese aparato, y lo miraba como los indios a la brújula, que la llamaban “aguja de marear”; y, cuando ya renunciaba a entender a ese hombre–quién puede entender al que es capaz de cualquier cosa–, él empezó a hablar de la caza de chinchillas en la zona. Planteaba la caza de chinchillas como una aventura impersonal, no se sabía si él iba a cazarlas, o nosotras para él, o todos juntos. Era así: primero uno le debía caer bien a un indio que cuidaba un predio, después sortear peligros y dificultades como clima, alimañas y gendarmería, y no sé en qué momento ni de dónde sacó él un hermoso libro sobre la cría de chinchillas que entusiasmó a Julia como si toda la vida se hubiera dedicado a cazar bichos. De los canastos no sacó el libro y esa era otra particularidad suya: de repente aparecía una cosa o un tema y después desaparecía. ¿Repartiría el padre Werner libros sobre chinchillas como quien reparte estampitas o la banana y el chocolate de su dieta? Se ve que lograba discípulos, primero mi hermano y ahora Julia. Una vez que pasamos la frontera, desapareció y no supimos más nada de él. No recuerdo en qué momento sacó las canastas del camarote. Yo seguía recorriendo el tren de punta a punta, con mi vaquero y

mi camiseta a rayas blancas y rojas. Para tomarme un descanso, me senté en un asiento de segunda clase frente a una señora joven con su nene. La señora llevaba un trajecito azul muy gastado, de un azul humo, un bolso ídem y zapatos de taco. Me pareció que esa vestimenta era inadecuada para viajar y me sentí superior como turista. Ella me sonrió y yo a ella. La sonrisa de ella era prudente, como si estuviera mal desplegarla, como si se hiciera perdonar. Su bolso, su traje y el nene que sostenía con la mano estaban de los más limpios (el nene era muy moreno, pero parecía lustrado, igual que sus zapatillitas). Algo de esa incongruencia entre aquel azul triste y viejo y la limpieza me interesó, y empecé a charlar. Era maestra como yo, daba clases en una escuela del Estado en las afueras de La Paz. Me contó que en la escuela no había bancos para los alumnos, que daban clase en troncos de los árboles, que circulaban las gallinas cerca y distraían a los niños, que no había ni mapa ni pizarrón ni . . .En cambio, dijo: “La escuela privada tiene todos los lujos habidos y por haber”. Dejé de despreciar su vestimenta inadecuada. Mientras iba hablando, le venía una especie de indignación que me la hizo ver como a una persona digna. Entonces la conversación se hizo más fluida y, en un momento, sacó del bolso un pollo trozado y le cortaba pedacitos chicos al nene. Le decía:

–Come, hijito.

Otra vez pensé que era inadecuado llevar pollo para un viaje tan largo (estábamos en la frontera y ella iba a La Paz); lo cortaba tan prolijamente que finalmente decidí que estaba bien comer pollo en el tren. Empecé a pensar en las similitudes y en las diferencias. Las dos éramos maestras (yo maestrita), pero mientras ella vivía de su pobre sueldo yo usaba el mio para viajar y para comprar cuanta pavada se me antojara; no pensaba en ser maestra toda la vida y, además, daba clases en una escuela que tenía de todo, aunque fuera del Estado. Y yo no quería mejorar nada de mi escuela, más bien quería incendiarla porque pensaba que la directora me perseguía, y

eso era una persecución inaguantable: me había dicho dos veces que no pusiera el portafolio sobre el escritorio. Ella, en cambio, hacía pedidos a las autoridades para que le mandaran mapas, libros, bancos, y leche para los alumnos. No bien pasamos la frontera, sacó una banderita de Bolivia, se la dio al nene y le dijo:

–Di “Viva Bolivia” hijito.

El nene, ella y yo dijimos “Viva Bolivia” y su sonrisa se abrió, triste, y fue como un regalo. Yo en ese momento no estaba politizada en lo más mínimo, ni siquiera leía los diarios. Volví al camarote y la olvidé al momento, con la inconciencia propia de la primera juventud que entra y sale de los acontecimientos en un santiamén. Lo consideré un encuentro interesante, como el del padre Werner o los muchachos peruanos. Pero ¡había tantas cosas interesantes para ver todavía! Años después, empecé a leer toda una bibliografía sobre dependencia y liberación, las lanzas y las llamas, en fin, todo lo que estaba en plaza. Leía con la pasión de una iluminada, como si al fin hubiera encontrado mi lugar en la vida. Por supuesto que de todo eso que leí tengo una idea global, pero de la maestra boliviana me he acordado siempre, a lo largo del tiempo.

Born in Moreno, Argentina in 1936, Hebe Uhart is known for her short story and essay collections, as well as two novels: Camilo asciende (1987) and Mudanzas (1995). In addition to her writings, Uhart taught philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires and worked as a journalist for newspapers such as El Pais in Montevideo. In 2017, Uhart received the Manuel Rojas Ibero-American Narrative Prize to honor her literary achievements.

Anna Vilner is a literary translator and PhD student in comparative literature at the University of Texas-Austin. Her translations of Hebe Uhart’s collected essays are forthcoming from Archipelago.

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