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Monday, Feb. 06, 2006 - 2:12 a.m.

The Bolivian capital of La Paz possesses the quality of a developing photograph. It is an image slowly appearing on a piece of photographic paper, where the stillness of the canvas and the movement within it are each an intrinsic part of the other. La Paz (meaning 'Peace', shortened from 'The City of Our Lady of Peace') can be visualized as a series of scenes where change and movement are so subtle that they sometimes escape the eye: an elderly Quechua woman slowly ascends a steep cobble-stoned street, a political slogan emerges over days across an abandoned beer factory's wall, the cloud blanket leaving the city - but did watching its departure take minutes or hours?

The geographical description of La Paz is that it is a city perched 12000 feet above sea level, in a stone bowl of hard brown mountains. Not long after arrival, one notices that there is always a cloud leaving or arriving. The air is thin, the difficulty in breathing ensures that few words are wasted at this beautiful, harsh altitude. Once, this land was forest speckled with the Andean Quecha, then the Incan people, then it was a colonial city, the centre of a Spanish South America fed by precious metals and wars. The 20th century, replete with revolutions and coups, the invasions of the Presidential palace, the public hanging of Presidents, the army tanks on city roads, blockades of burning tyres, the blurry echoing voices from loudhailers and electric speakers at public rallies, smoke, teargas in the air, peeling walls vandalized with the stoic imprint of Che's face - each image has been entered into the public memory of the indigenous Quechua underclass. They have been watching the images arrive and change for millennia.

Every iteration of the circle is slightly different. Gabriel Garcia Marquez asks the same question as the Quechua people: are things always changing but fundamentally the same, or does the familiarity of the repetition disguise the underlying change? Hence, the ambiguity of the developing photograph. After taking a picture of the Spanish Church at the city centre one afternoon, a photographer returns to his darkroom to develop it. He takes a wooden peg and uses it to shake a piece of photographic paper in a tray full of chemicals. Afterwards, while it is pegged to a line under the red light, the photographic paper drips. The image of the church slowly appears (no, perhaps it was there in the paper already?) Things are like that here in La Paz - the blood of horses run under the cobblestone streets, and it is impossible to distinguish if that blood is an artifact of history, or from a war to be fought in the future. The history of La Paz, like the appearing photograph hung on the line, is something wet with itself.

The early morning drive from the city to the airport is a quiet journey from the centre of the bowl up to its rim. 5 a.m. in La Paz is not black, but a deep, resonant blue. The roads are empty, except for an elderly Quechua woman walking up a steep street. The taxi glides past the silent Spanish Church, the modern apartments, the high-walled villas, the illegally constructed hillside homes of the poor, past the thousands of sleeping Bolivians lying perfectly horizontal. Each image of the sleeping city is momentarily caught on the taxi's glass windows, and then it becomes lost. As the taxi ascends the hills, the streetlamps down below diminish into orange and yellow dots. La Paz, disappears (or appears) like a photograph, into a map of calming lights.

A hundred metres above the city, the taxi swings away from the rim and speeds down on a straight road. It seems to float on the road towards the airport, where an ageing Boeing 707 waits to take off from the single runway. A bus, traveling in the opposite direction, passes the taxi. The bus has been traveling for an hour on the highway since leaving Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. Lake Titicaca is vast and the vista of the lake consists of three horizontal strips: blue-grey water, then mountains, and a cloud-filled sky above it. At the same altitude, other bodies of water choose to be clouds.

The bus has its own story. Manufactured in Japan, the sixteen-seater Toyota used to be a school bus for primary school children in Nagoya Prefecture. Then it was sold and carried by an iron ship to Taiwan, where it ferried factory workers on weekdays (and prostitutes on weekends). Fifteen years later, it was sold as scrap metal, but furtively shipped to Peru, and then driven up the highlands to La Paz, for new life as a public bus. The eight red rows of seats are indented to various depths and curvatures, the dirty yellow foam retaining the different weights and body shapes of Japanese schoolchildren, Taiwanese prostitutes, and Quechua women. The odometer is now broken, but the bus has traveled more distance across the world than some aeroplanes. On the way to Peru, the ship carrying the bus had almost sunk in a tropical storm near the equator; a sailor had pressed his palm against the bus's windscreen to steady himself as he prayed with his eyes closed on the open, wildly rolling deck. Even now, when the weather gets cold enough for condensation to build up on the windscreen, the faint imprimatur of a mysterious, anonymous palm is seen on the glass, despite the driver's best efforts to wipe it off.

When the taxi passes the bus, there is only one passenger on the bus, slouched against the last row of seats. He takes the first bus from Lake Titicaca every morning to the city, where he used to work as a photographer for a newspaper a year ago; now he works at the Taquina Beer factory at the city periphery, packing cans of beer into cartons. He lost his newspaper job not long after his wife died of brain cancer; his editor would instruct him to photograph an election rally or a bus accident but he would return to the office hours later, with photographs bereft of people. The picture of an alley, the facade of an apartment building, black and white monographs of clouds. He has also discovered that since his wife's death, his pictures always turn out over or under-exposed, as if he has lost his sensitivity to light.

Earlier, while waiting for the bus at the edge of Lake Titicaca, he had walked over to the water's edge, knelt down, cupped his hands and drank from it. As the water ran down his esophagus, it carried a radiating fan of coolness that spread across his chest. There have been other people at this spot before him days, months, years ago: a tourist from Singapore who took a photograph of the lake, a Quechua boy who washed his face in it, a hundred men from an Incan army who, on their way to attack a settlement across the mountains, stopped to drink Lake Titicaca's water. Because of the lake's high altitude, the relationship between the water and the clouds that hang low above it, is more direct than anywhere else on earth.

It was still dark when the man held the water in his cupped hands. He had not been not thinking of history as he knelt there, but only of Selena. If he had remained there unmoving as the sun came up and illuminated the scene - as if it were a developing photograph, the light would have revealed that the water in his hands, like the water in the lake and in the clouds above it, were furious and quivering - like his thoughts.


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