Route 36: The World’s First Cocaine Bar

First published in DotDotDash (Issue 4, Winter 2010; Australia) //

“Take it out of the bag”, one of them whispers, as a small mountain of Bolivian marching powder unfolds from the wrap. Forming peaks where it piles on the surface, the small patch of black bin liner is emptied into the soft light of the room. They lean in; throats dry with a fiendish desire, pushing pure uncut white to and fro with an out-of-date health insurance card from some place far, far behind them now. Racked up with two fat lines sat side-by-side along the blackened edges of a bootlegged copy of Appetite For Destruction, some stranger nearby leans in and assuredly urges: “Don’t use the straw, use this”, as he carefully hands over a softened and tightly rolled 10 Boliviano note. The newcomers eye their bounty, savour a last intake breath as they lurch down, and begin judiciously disappearing it up their snouts, chattering and grunting between disjointed monologues that they might later call conversation.

A late departure from Heathrow is now boarding for the complex flight plan to La Paz with a half-day layover in Europe’s drug capital, Amsterdam, to set up the next stop-over in Peru and finally onto El Alto, Bolivia a full thirty-three hours and eleven hundred pounds later. When we’re handed off to the buses as they ride in on the vertigo high roads, we encircle the valley metropolis of Bolivia’s capital, which sits pretty at 3,660 meters above sea-level, making it the world’s highest capital city (but we’ll let that pun slide). Winding in from the mountain ranges we’re afforded a final opportunity to peer down on the cacophony below – because once we’re down there and in amongst it, we won’t be getting any of the peace that the name suggests.

It’s not surprising that with a flick through the airport guidebooks one soon realises the nightlife of La Paz isn’t set for reading or researching, but for devouring – with one’s eyes, ears and, seemingly for some, one’s nose. The blatancy of this well-known fact only really hits once you get there and, like any worthwhile place to go, a lot of where you’re bound to go can’t be written up in any tourist handbook.

Of course, Bolivia is renowned for several things that you’re bound to come across with a little scratching around the Lonely Planets. For starters, it’s the only nation to be named after anyone, and aptly it’s the revolutionary emancipator, Simón Bolívar. It’s also the land in which Che Guevara was captured and executed with the aid of the CIA, not forgetting the alleged resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bolivia even boasts the site of the world’s largest salt flats, a white desert from which numerous satellite systems are calibrated. And all these treasures sit amongst the ruins of the Tiwanaka, Inca and Uru ancient cultures. But, fortunately, this is isn’t a press release from the Visit Bolivia tourism office. There’s a lot more festering in the undergrowth of these cobbled streets that they’d be sure not to mention.

Though Bolivia has a refreshed and nascent democracy, heralded in by the grass-roots movement of its indigenous people that has seen their leader, Evo Morales, elevated to the presidency since 2005, it’s still a land plagued by old problems. And though it’s a new wave of democratisation that parts of Latin America are seeing, owing to the reassertion of economic control by its governments’ resistance to external mandates, the Bolivia that Morales inherited is the poorest country in South America. He has fiercely combated poverty and hunger while consistently defending indigenous rights, one of which has caused undue controversy; the ancient rite of cultivating the coca leaf. He’s been a hot topic of discussion in the press, albeit in largely negative terms, due to his solidarity with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the imperial resistance represented by international organisations like the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the recently formed Union of South American Republics (UNASUR). Yet these are initiatives planted and grown from the ground up, supported by the majorities. Compare it with the trickle-down ‘democracy’ that comes from Westminster where, for example, all three leaders of the dominant parties have largely the same background, out of touch with the man in the street but urging you from glowing television sets and sincere eyes that they know what it’s like and that it can ‘change’.

But you’d meet with blank eyes and puzzled faces if you started that discussion sat in this place; if you’d said ‘President Morales’ they might ask, “That guy with the big face?” And in a city where the Andes Mountains dominate the skyline, the snows of yester-year rolling along their peaks, that sort of talk is reserved for retrospective reflection and not tolerated in amongst the action, as it’s a distinct and altogether more intriguing kind of snow that many have travelled to the dark heart of South America for.

Incorrectly labelled the world’s first cocaine lounge, ‘Route 36’, is nonetheless notable for being among the few. Travellers in La Paz opt for this one out of the few around; it’s chosen for its relaxed atmosphere and welcoming attitude. We’re told of a place called Veronica’s, named for it’s sexagenarian ex-prostitute owner, apparently unfavoured amongst backpackers due to its grimy interiors and knife-loving regulars, not to mention the inelegant prospect of witnessing the leathery face of a used-up strumpet inhaling savage charges of powder, to then trample through the slime and the dirt for a rub up on some depraved vagrant’s unzipped lap.

With that idea behind us, a ragtag group of stragglers all heavy from a night of drinking and trading coin in sporadic games of Texas Hold ‘Em, decide to band together and call a cab. A couple more silent types enrol when they hear the word circulate and we exit out of the bar’s warm confines. We hail a cab; ours has failed to show. “We can’t take too many at once, they don’t usually like that – it alarms the neighbours,” some receptionists are bringing us along from the hostel. They have the contact. We jump in the cramped hatchback, rowdy and curious. By the time we arrive we’ve turned solemnly introverted – chancing what the night has planned for us. Perhaps a full on crack den, it’s suggested, replete with used syringes hanging from crooked arms, withering bodies strewn up and down shit-stained walls. Or maybe it’s just a cosy little cottage in the country, well lit and warm, bourgeois Bolivians fumbling around an antique table, sniffing it up off some butler’s tray. Whatever was going on in our heads, the hard-to-shake paranoia never escaped, the possibility of finding yourself stranded in bandit country always real. Imagine midnight Dagenham, with masks and a black van for Express Kidnappings and instead of the BNP you’ve got heavily armed false policeman and violent street gangs, though, like Dagenham, much of it’s just paranoia and if you’re not American you’re probably all right.

Dropped in some nondescript street in an unthreatening residential area, we pay the cabby and get out in silence, the usual Boozed-up Britain rowdiness killed off, we walk across the road – no one says a thing. We step up to a large steel gate across the road, leaving it to one of the girls to knock. Apparently they like girls, so they’re nudged to the fore.

We wait. Nothing happens. Knock again. Waiting, listening to the metal shake in the crisp air. Someone makes a phone call. Slowly, an invisible door opens and the post-box slides across to reveal a pair of suspicious eyes. He looks us up and down in a vague sort of uncaring way. We hear the other side of the gate unlock as the eyes disappear, but we’re still worried we’re not in yet.

“What do you want?”

“We’re looking for Marco,” one of the girls says.

Pause. A quick look around.

“Come in.”

We get the nod; we’re nearly there. Walking in line through to the blue-lit corridor and enter stage left, it feels and looks like nothing else. The music seeps out gently through to the hall and I’m reminded of the restaurant scene from ‘Goodfellas’ as we track inside. At the entrance a middle-aged couple are chatting around what appears to be the front desk. Before them sits a table of unlit candles, a few for each table doubling up as ashtrays, alongside a glass full of chipped straws and a pile of pirated CD cases. It all looks extremely improvised.

“Do we take these now?” someone says pointing to the CDs and straws.

“No, that’s okay, just come on through.”

The faces at the desks furtively smile at us, a little awkward as they make us immediately conscious of where we are. We go through to the ground floor of an open plan converted house, with all the appliances taken out. A selection of thrown-together coffee tables and large, gray sofas have been put in their place. As we soak in the action, slowly it begins to dawn, this is normal now. And finding it hard to shake the surreal surroundings we take some seats at an empty table close-by to another, where youthful faces plunge their heads into the dusted table. Conversation stagnates.

We’re greeted, “All right lads.” The music stops. Everyone smiles through the silence. The room is dimly lit by muted disco lights and floor lamps, with national flags adorning the walls. They are black with marker pen, displaying messages like “Steve-o on tour”, “Gary loves boys” and our personal favourite: “REALITY WAITS”, giving a flavour of what type of brains have been scattered on these sofas by morning. At first it strikes us the place is quite small and not even that busy. It’s 2 am, and those that are there are really getting stuck into it. “It’s early yet, there’ll be more when the clubs shut.” Conversation, if you can call it that, drives out of the mouths of all the chattering heads. Sentences are blurred in an unbreakable wall of voice, slurring and jittery. Others sit deep in their seats, tense but trying to loosen up, with cigarettes feverishly going from mouth to ashtray. Music starts again; the rhythm from the sound system resonates through the bodies of the agitated many.

“Good tune, this” someone comments. “Yeah.” The uninitiated sit tapping the offbeat while the well-schooled nod calmly out of rhythm. “Just relax, they’ll change the music if you want.”

We smile. Someone asks for Joy Division. They don’t have any. They put on Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’; it breaks the ice. As the night bears down on us, the company grows increasingly erratic. One thing about the powder witnessed here in abundance is the aggravation of mood inflicting itself upon the user’s psyche, the exhilaration and electric shock of gram upon gram sometimes ending in a barely controlled wriggling frenzy. But worryingly by naptime, they’ve usually slipped a little Valium to ease the bones.

Due to the highly illegal wares on sale the respectable-looking and businesslike middle-aged proprietors of this place have had to shift it every few weeks. Marco, though he’s dressed in a hood and jeans, is called the waiter. He fills me in on the details in perfect English, a language that he’s forced to practice by some of our fastest talking exports. “This is a new location, we’ve been here for a couple of weeks. We were raided not long ago; gas masks and smoke grenades, a whole SWAT team. But we received warning. We’re usually told by an informer beforehand so we get rid of anything illegal before they turn up. It looks like we’re just an after hours spot selling some drinks and that satisfies them. Policing is like the theatre around here, it’s just a show.”

Trying to talk to the actual owners is difficult. They seem to view their customers as wild beasts, creatures of the night, as they cash in on their craving. I go back to my table, staying at a distance where they’re most comfortable with me.

Marco gets down to business smiling as he takes some drinks orders, going through the beers and spirits on offer. Water is the biggest seller, it costs nearly as much as what he offers next: 100 Bolivianos a gram for standard or 120 Bolivianos “strong”, about £11. He hints that there’s little difference between them, a business move that perhaps plays on the need for some to appear ‘hardcore’. One of these bulbous-eyed manics tells me: “San Pedro prison down the street sells pure, so pure the oil grips your fingertips, and it’s about half the price. But it’s hard to get in.” Some are suspicious the owners are cutting it to up the profit margins but no one seems to mind.

The waiters and waitresses are usually a chatty and amiable type. It’s their prerogative to be as personable and friendly as possible, and they let you in on some of their esoteric knowledge of the scene in La Paz. They offer us a tour around some of the bar’s quieter areas for a chat. They tell us the tired anecdotes of those that stay days at a time, with minimal sleep and maximal intake: “People coming out of Britain, America, Ireland and Australia are the most common, where cocaine costs a lot more. It’s a need to take advantage of the here and now, not just for the price, but the transcendent experience,” Marco explains. Since returning from Bolivia, travellers have commented that they no longer touch cocaine; its impurity in London too frustrating and its cost too inflated, instead the Puritans dream of their next septum-busting trip to the region.

As Marco shows us the vacant disco room, reserved only for weekends, he discourses eloquently on his experiences. He labels himself an ‘autodidact’, detailing some of the reading he does on the job when he gets the time. He shows me his copy of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Moksha’, though he admits he does indulge heavily in what Route 36 is known for. Marco demonstrates with zeal by carving a thick streak of white around the corners of Gloria Estafan’s Greatest Hits ’84 to ‘91, whilst explaining to us that he’s from Peru where they have a similar drug culture. He says he’s seen the dangerous effects of the drug first hand, and the effect of this place on travellers, even locals, as he leans over making it all disappear into his skull. Death row he calls it, as he whips back up. He points one out, who’s been drinking and loading heavily, talking incessantly about his newborn son, Seraphim. “Angel of Fire!” he shouts as tears well in his bloodshot eyes. “But his wife has kicked him out,” Marco adds, when we’ve found an isolated spot, “And they’ve moved to another city. But he still comes here every day, always talking the same shit.”

When I ask Marco what happens if things get out of hand, he sounds like a bouncer from some scab-heavy South London pub, “We rarely have to ask someone to leave, people seem to behave quite well. As you can see, even the ones that take too much, all they do is talk. Usually it’s the drunks that give more hassle. If we don’t like what they’re doing, we call them a cab and say goodnight. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves here.” At times it’s understandable Marco has adjusted to the things he’s seen. He talks unemotionally in a flat tone telling of the countless reformed coke addicts who have relapsed to excess in here, the fresh faced gap-year students who cane it day and night, night after night, bouncing between sessions in the bars to lengthy bouts in the tomb of 36.

I tell him that Bolivia’s President is painted up as a coke fiend himself in the Western press, he nods: “They vilify Morales because he’s a man of the people,” he says, smoking on his L&Ms, “Don’t listen to that bullshit you read about him. He chews coca leaf, just like everyone else. It’s an ancient tradition going back thousands of years. It’s the ones that don’t know anything about it that want it criminalised. It’s the same thing as the War on Drugs in the US, they criminalise all the poor people and they throw them in jail.”

Morales made a similar point when he stood before the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs last year, chewing the leaf to underline his point saying, “It is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes.” He added: “Today, millions of people chew coca in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and northern Argentina and Chile. The coca leaf continues to have ritual, religious and cultural significance that transcends indigenous cultures and encompasses the mestizo population.”

Although cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, in a lengthy and complicated process that makes ‘cocaine hydrochloride’, it’s in a completely separate ritual that the normal folk of South America use it. Yet many confuse the traditional act of growing coca leaf with the relatively new business of making cocaine. Highly addictive ‘crack cocaine’ is, however, higher on the list of dangers, the liver and the blood metabolising it quickly, causing the user to become dependent on it within a fatally short space of time, also making it a harder habit to kick as habit spirals quickly into a ‘real’ addiction; the body’s metabolism needs it, not just wants it. But crack isn’t a problem among tourists here who seem to know where to draw the line.

Nevertheless, many countries including the UK and the US, have seen ‘the crack bomb’ hit countless of their cities, with illegal drug producers and law enforcement both standing to profit as the poverty-stricken become evermore entangled in substance abuse and botched attempts at transcending misery. All the while government enforce hamfisted polices and label it as aid.

Many commentators have recognised America’s phoney ‘War on Drugs’, a constant since Nixon’s days, as a thin veil for counterinsurgency and deliberate sabotage of the democratically elected governments of Latin America. In the 1980s, Lars Schoultz, a leading scholar in the field of human rights, noted that US aid, particularly military aid, “has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens … to the hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights”. When the Obama campaign was running, it was all talk about prevention and treatment, instead of punishment, including their decision to drop the term ‘War on Drugs’, with the government stating that they were not in a war against their own people, so instead opted for softer language.

Yet actual policy hasn’t changed. This ‘War on Certain Drugs’ that the US and UK continue to wage domestically and around the world, despite the rhetoric of the new administration, not only targets countries like Afghanistan but also Peru, Bolivia, Columbia and Ecuador with derisive policies of criminalisation and chemical warfare. By arming and funding the tyrannical regime of Columbia’s Oxford-educated Álvaro Uribe, once close friend of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, the US have just set up military bases strategically placed to undertake chemical fumigation on the crops of South American farmers. This ‘fumigation’ doesn’t just kill the coca plants; it kills off all agriculture, leaving the peasants homeless and scattered – essentially channelled off into the slums of the big cities, leaving space for large mining and engineering corporations to come in and till the land without recourse. The Pentagon’s policies have seen human rights plummet in Columbia, marking it out as one of the worst in the world for such violations with huge dispersion of indigenous peoples. And this is all with the aid of Obama’s administration for “change”.

It’s no revelation that the West’s governmental programs supposedly aimed at stemming the illegal production of dangerous substances have actually radically increased the use of drugs. The question that is rarely asked, however is, why has huge increases in cocaine production exploded in the Andes in recent years? Why is it the peasants of Columbia, Peru and Bolivia have to turn to coca producing? The effect of the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, under the control of the US, is to push farmers toward agricultural exports – to produce for sale abroad rather than local consumption. This encourages South American client nations to “create a political and economic climate conducive to private investment of both domestic and foreign capital” and “to base their economies on a system of private enterprise”, according to the 1954 National Security Council’s Top Secret Memorandum called ‘US Policy Toward Latin America’.

These initiatives in effect cut out social programs, where money would be spent on education and health, and instead go toward reducing government deficits by increasing exports. Then, as academic Noam Chomsky writes, “they cut back tariffs so that we can pour our highly subsidised food exports into their countries, which of course undercuts peasant production. Put all that together and what do you get? You get a huge increase in Bolivian coca production, as their only comparative advantage.”

The future seems to have much more of the same in store as Britons go to the polls. Election rhetoric, notorious for cutting foreign policy out from the discussion, has only brought the issue up in order to blather ingratiantingly for the polling cards of “our brave” soldiers and their families. In realpolitik there is little room for manoeuvring under the guiding hand of the leading empire, despite what Clegg and Cameron may mutter from behind the masks. They will of course tout the boost to democracy the narrow television debates are supposed to have brought us, whilst furthering our progression toward primacy of discourse over real policy, though it’s lessons from countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, where actual representatives of the people rule the country, that the so-called ‘strong democracies’ of the West could learn a trick or two. Instead we are offered elite or elite or elite.

It’s the rejection of these Old World values that the new democracies of Latin America are fighting for. After his 2008 victory in the recall referendum, before which he stated he would stand down if facing defeat, Morales said: “For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States.” The increased support from his 2005 electoral win saw the US-backed elite opposition turn violent, seeing the assassination of numerous peasant supporters of Morales’ government.

Marco shakes his head as we take a last look around the hollow chambers of Route 36. A cab has been called for us, and our escort waits with us by the door. “I guess we will see what new horrors Western democracy has in store for South American dictatorships,” he says with a wry grin quickly appearing and disappearing across his taut face. The door swings open and we exit out through the quietly fortified front garden, leaving behind the rising chemical heat and the crystal skulls of the Death Row inmates, jumping in our cab and waving the driver on down the sun-splashed road.

// Also published on: Snipe and Spike Magazine

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