In the Family
“This is my wife’s uncle, bro,” he said. “He was going to be the next president of Bolivia, but he died not so long ago.”
“Yeah? And who’s that over there?”
“That’s my grandfather. He was a general in the Bolivian army. He came here from Germany and gave his life fighting for this country in the war with Paraguay.”
“For real, bro. We got the historical connections up in here. You know what I’m saying?”
I tried to show enthusiasm, an interest for what Beethoven was saying as we stared at the portraits hanging around his colonial mansion. Ania and I were couchsurfing somewhere in the bland suburbs of La Paz. Beethoven had invited us to stay in his palace along with about 15 other travelers.
“We like to host a lot a people at the same time, you know, party it up every night in this piece,” he said. “For sure, help yourself to whatever’s in the fridge. If you got laundry to do, just give it to one of the maids, and if you need anything else, let us know cuz we got it all. God gave us everything we need in this life and we are here to share it with y’all. But excuse me, I gotta get back to work.”
I watched Beethoven run up the stairs in his backward Yankees cap and baggy sweat pants. He was a strange fellow. Talked very fast. Almost sweating at times. Probably on uppers or coke, but he was a nice host. A devout Christian, too.
For the first time in our trip, Ania and I infiltrated the other side of Latin America: the obscenely rich ruling class. Beethoven was born in Bolivia, raised in Southern California, and then returned to Bolivia to marry the daughter of an important politician and watch over his family assets.
Which were many.
He owned every Burger King and Subway franchise in the country, he sold uranium mining equipment, he owned the local water desalination industries, and he also bought, sold and developed real estate throughout the altiplano – all without leaving his bedroom.
He lived in a four-story home, but stayed in that one room. All his meals were delivered to the front door in bag loads of styrofoam boxes. Only his four-year-old daughter would come downstairs on a regular basis – usually to eat lunch with the three maids. They took care of everything while Beethoven stayed upstairs, comfortably with his wife, yelling on the phone all day, keeping an eye on his couchsurfing guests through Closed-Circuit-Security cameras that were installed in every room of the house.
“Maybe we’re in a reality show and we don’t know it,” Ania said while staring at one of the cameras in our basement bedroom.
We stayed at Beethoven’s place for the majority of our time in La Paz. It was free, comfortable, and aside from the constant voyeurism, we felt at home. Other travelers came and went. We cooked grand meals together – lasagnas, pizzas, pastas, anything Italian – and shared stories over wine.
Occasionally, Beethoven and his wife would leave their bedroom and come downstairs to join us. They’d pour us shots of cognac and feed us ice cream cake.
“Might as well enjoy it while it lasts,” I told Ania.
But a strange feeling remained throughout our stay and it grew every time Beethoven and his wife got drunk. They’d ramble on for hours about get-rich-quick-in-the-third-world schemes.
“Yo, Bolivians ain’t poor, there’s plenty of money here, only the indigenous are poor,” he said without noting the majority of Bolivians are indigenous. “You just gotta get the hook up with the government. Once you know someone inside you can start making all kinds of money selling them ‘economic development projects’ and shit.”
“For real, bro. I’m the only motherfucker in this piece selling uranium didactic spectrometers. You know how much money those bring in? And of course, I do it for the peeps, too, because when they find those rare metals and shit, yo, I’m basically helping this country develop, you hear?”
“Y’all could do the same, you know? It ain’t even that much work. For real, I just outsource my research and blueprint designs to India or some poor country like that, pay almost nothing for it, and then sell their work for twenty times what I paid for it. Yo, it’s easy making money if you know how to play the game. Cheap foreign labor’s where it’s at!”
He went on and on. One night, the dining room was full of people and we sat there, listening to him talk, yell, explode about his many projects when he made his most memorable declaration.
“You know man, I been shining ever since I came down here. I shine like a star. I won’t even tell you how much I shine cuz you gonna feel this small if I do,” he said, holding his thumb and index finger together.
There was a prolonged silence after that. Brilliantly, one of the couchsurfers held up his cognac and shouted, “A toast! A toast to Beethoven’s shining!”
We laughed, toasted, drank, and tried to forget what was just said.
But it was hard.
The shining speech was followed by a wonderful conversation with Beethoven’s wife where she claimed the “jews deserved what they got during the Holocaust because Judas betrayed Jesus.”
And it doesn’t end there.
A few nights later, it was Beethoven’s birthday. Everyone went out to celebrate at the club, but Ania and I stayed home because we were “tired from walking all day.” Everyone left the house and we spent the night talking to Beethoven’s anarchist psychiatrist, who had flown in from Buenos Aires to give him “special attention.” After a nice talk on deconstructing society, we went to sleep.
Somewhere around 3 a.m. I woke up to the sound of glass breaking. It was dark in the living room and I couldn’t see much, but I could hear Beethoven’s wife yelling, “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE! Get out of my house! You drug-addict! You asshole! Get the fuck out of my house and don’t come back!”
There was a struggle, what sounded like table falling over, a few slaps, some crying, some more yelling, and finally, the sound of a lone woman’s heavy breathing followed by the voice of Beethoven’s psychiatrist saying, “This is very ugly.”
The next day, Beethoven had cuts across his right cheek and both his ears. His wife had a black eye and a cracked lip.
At that point, after a week and a half of indulgence and the insanity it secretes, Ania and I decided it was time to find a hotel. We packed our bags, thanked the royal family and left.
Looking back on it, we had a good time in that mansion, but I should’ve known something was wrong when I read Beethoven’s couchsurfing profile and saw he described his ethnicity as “Californian.”
La Paz, Bolivia - © Diego Cupolo 2012