Volume 4: Pigeons in Plaza Murillo
REFLECTIONS | The gentle art of making a difference
Anyone who’s been around enough journalists (or spent time in a newsroom) may come to believe that we are a motley tribe of (mostly) poorly-adjusted, dysfunctional cynics. It’s not entirely untrue. Researching, interviewing and reporting on a constant barrage of failures, disasters and tragedies will do that to anyone.
I’ve overheard enough public conversations, seen enough social media posts and have had people tell me directly that news is never positive.
Like other journos, I try to defend the need to expose ugliness as a path to resolution. Often, it pays off.
Two days later, the Alberta government announced a joint pilot program with the federal government. Starting next Monday, returning international travellers to Alberta will be able voluntarily take an on-the-spot COVID-19 test. It’s an attempt to reduce a 14-day quarantine period that’s caused the most ardent voyagers around to balk at boarding a flight.
It’s also a sign that our work means something.
ARCHIVE | Pigeons in Plaza Murillo
From time to time, I’ll post work beyond journalism, like this creative non-fiction short story I wrote for a contest last year.
He looked mostly like all the rest. The backpack, the camera, the darting eyes: a nameless figure among a predictable mix of mingling locals and zealous shutterbugs, momentarily deferential to history.
But there was something about his gaze—a cross between wistful admiration and vacant inquiry—and the unchartered innocence of his movements.
It was Friday morning and Plaza Murillo was crowded. Guards stood idly outside the presidential palace. Pigeons puttered about.
I approached him as he was about to frame a shot. I asked if he could help me find my hotel. I opened my guidebook to a page with a map. Together, we studied it. He wasn’t from here, but he was willing to help.
He pointed away from the square and said, in Spanish, that there were several hotels along a couple of nearby streets. He hadn’t heard of mine.
A man in sunglasses approached us. He had a stern, yet calm, look on his face. He said he was a narco-control officer. He quickly flashed an identification card and tucked it into his trench coat pocket. He didn’t have a uniform.
The officer said he was doing spot checks. We needed to go to the police station with him. Immediately.
In the plaza, it was a numbers game.
“No todos vienen a Bolivia para el turismo,” he said. Not everyone comes to Bolivia for tourism.
Seconds later, a taxi pulled up to the curb. The officer motioned us to get in. I looked at The Tourist—a sun-beaten, brown-skinned young man who spoke reasonable Spanish. He wore a knitted orange sweater that he’d likely picked up at a stall somewhere on his South American sojourn.
I shrugged my shoulders. I guess we have to go, I said.
The officer climbed into the front. The Tourist, perplexed, slipped into the back. I got after him and closed the door.
The cab lurched away from the plaza. After a few moments of silence, the officer turned around. His calm guise was gone, replaced with an abrupt intensity. He demanded to see my bag. In a burst of anger, he threatened to throw me in jail if I didn’t cooperate. We pulled over. He rummaged through my belongings.
Two uniformed policemen walked toward the taxi along the sidewalk. We silently pulled away from the curb.
The narco cop asked The Tourist for his passport. He said he didn’t have it with him.
Next, Narco Cop asked for his backpack. The Tourist balked. I flicked my head towards the interrogator, summoning my acquaintance to comply.
The Tourist handed it over. Narco Cop plunged a hand inside. He retrieved a money belt. Inside a pouch, he found what he’d demanded.
He unleashed a tirade of threats as he waved the passport. It’s an offense to lie to authorities. I can put you in jail for three years, he warned.
The taxi pulled over again. The driver had yet to say a word. The street wasn’t deserted, but it wasn’t a place where tourists roamed.
Narco Cop held a credit card in his hand. What’s the pin, he demanded. The Tourist said his card didn’t work outside of his country. Narco Cop persisted. The Tourist relented.
Narco Cop relayed the number on the phone along with the Visa number.
The Tourist stiffened. He peered out the window and then at the door. I sat quietly.
The number didn’t work. Narco Cop’s brow furrowed.
He tossed The Tourist his bag and ordered him out of the car.
As a final assertion of his stolen authority, Narco Cop had asked The Tourist where he was staying.
“I will come for you if I find any problems.”
As if we’d never met, he was again a nameless soul on a city sidewalk. I knew where he’d go next. Like clockwork, he’d find the Tourist Police office. He’d scan a wall of photos, frantically looking for a face, any face that looked like Narco Cop—or me. He’d report the theft of his bolivianos and card, well aware he wouldn’t get either back.
The shock would abate. He’d come around, jolted alert as he relates the story to hostel strangers and devises a plan out of his predicament. Defiance would leak from his fingertips in e-mails to friends. He’d berate himself. Why me? Why didn’t I see the signs, he’d wonder, over and over.
I release him from my thoughts onto the trail of forsaken wanderers—slightly wounded, but still alive. Perhaps he’d curse the country and its people. Perhaps he’d curse me. Perhaps he’d rebook his flight home. Maybe he’d stay another day. Maybe he’d laugh about it. Maybe he’d be grateful that Narco Cop, or I, didn’t point a gun at him.
Maybe he’d be in awe of our mastery.
The Tourist faded further from our view, alone, many blocks away from where we found him.
Later, back at Plaza Murillo, with the pigeons and the people, I resumed my quest to find my elusive hotel.
This is a true story based on a personal experience while travelling in La Paz Bolivia in 2002. There’s a twist: I’ve recused myself from the role of narrator.
As always, if there’s anything you’d like me to write about, or illustrate, comment or send me an e-mail: email@example.com.