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[Letter from La Paz]

The Day of the Sea

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Bolivia’s dogged quest to reclaim its lost coastline

In 1879, Bolivia and Chile went to war over fertilizer. For years, a company with ties to the Chilean government had been mining saltpeter on what was then Bolivia’s coast — a barren, isolated strip of desert bordering the sea. When Bolivia tried to impose a new tax on the company, Chile sent its military to occupy the Bolivian port of Antofagasta. They invaded on Valentine’s Day, in the midst of Carnival. Perhaps distracted by all the drinking and dancing and eating, the Bolivians underestimated both the size and the conviction of the Chilean forces. They lost the war — known as the War of the Pacific — and all of their coastline. The country has been landlocked ever since.

For more than a century, Bolivia has done a lot of magical thinking to support its claim that this condition is only temporary. The country has a star for El Litoral (The Shore) on its coat of arms, and it hosts a yearly pageant to choose a beauty queen for the former territory. Chile, for its part, hasn’t budged.

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Cadets in the Bolivian Armada train at a base near the Strait of Tiquina, on Lake Titicaca © Fabio Cuttica/Contrasto/Redux

In 2013, three Bolivian soldiers were arrested while pursuing smugglers along the border with Chile and imprisoned there for more than a month. Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, was furious. He said that Chile had taken the soldiers hostage to send a message to Bolivia: Stay away from the ocean. The three soldiers were declared national heroes, and when they returned to Bolivia, they were greeted at the airport with garlands of yellow chrysanthemums.

A few weeks later, Morales’s government asked the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.) at The Hague to help settle the issue. Bolivia wants “sovereign access” to the Pacific coast — a partial restoration of the land that was lost in the 1879 war. As it stands, Bolivia can use some northern Chilean ports for shipping, but it pays taxes for the privilege and controls nothing. Bolivia has already made its case before the I.C.J., and Chile is scheduled to respond this month. Fifteen judges will then sit together in a wood-paneled room, in a city thousands of miles from the Andes, and decide whether the ocean Bolivia claims as its right will at last be returned to it.

March 23 is a national holiday in Bolivia: the Day of the Sea. In La Paz, crowds gather in Plaza Abaroa — named for a mining engineer who rose up against the Chileans — and sing songs about the Pacific Ocean. When I was there in 2013, they started just before sunrise, with Bolivia’s official naval hymn: “The tricolor flag hoisted on the halyard / Anchors raised, full steam ahead / Heading west, steely lookouts sight / The sea that is Bolivia’s birthright.”

Between songs, birds chirped. The sky grew lighter. Illimani, the 21,000 foot peak that lies just south of the capital, was shrouded in clouds so white they seemed to glow pale blue. At eight-thirty, someone began to test a megaphone, and then snare drums started tapping out practice rhythms. Sailors in white suits lounged under altitude-stunted trees. About a hundred brass bands had assembled in the surrounding streets; they belonged to the military, to local schools, to neighborhood associations.

I had spent several weeks trying to get out on Lake Titicaca with the navy, without luck. I had tried contacting the captain in charge of media relations, and when he didn’t respond to my calls, I dropped by his office in La Paz. It went badly: our meeting began with him patting my head as if I were a lost child, then offering me a chocolate from a small box painted with the words united we will get back the sea. I asked him why Bolivia needed a navy. “When you see a sailor, what do you think? It inspires you to think of the ocean,” he said. “We are here to keep people paying attention to the sea.” He told me that a few years ago Bolivia decided to start calling their navy an armada, because the latter sounded bigger and more intimidating. “We want to be taken seriously,” he said. I asked him whether I could see the armada in action, and he grew agitated, speculating aloud that I was a Chilean spy, part of a fifth-column attack on his country. I laughed a little, thinking it was a joke. He ran his hand along the edge of his desk and looked at me sternly. “I didn’t say you definitely are. I only said we don’t know for sure that you are not.” Then he kicked me out of his office.

At the parade, I saw three sailors from the national armada being pulled along by three Saint Bernards in their own sailor outfits. After they passed, I walked over to a high school marching band. One of the kids had wire-rimmed glasses and crooked front teeth with tiny grooves in them, like apricot pits. He told me that his name was Manfred de la Alegría, and that he was sixteen. I asked him why he was here.

“This is an homage to the heroism of those great patriots whom Chile caught off guard in the War of the Pacific,” he said. He held a royal-blue trumpet in one hand and, with the other, patiently adjusted the gold tassels sewn to the shoulders of his blazer. Behind us, his teacher yelled at the students to get in line.

De la Alegría blinked in her direction, then turned back to me. I asked how he thought life would be different if Bolivia had access to the sea.

“It would greatly improve trade,” he said. “As far as I can tell, Chile’s really been taking advantage of exports — you know, to China, the United States. So if we had our own port, it would improve the country, help it develop.” Bolivia is the poorest country in South America; Chile is the richest.

He admitted that he’d gotten most of these ideas about the Bolivian economy from his father, a long-haul truck driver who brought merchandise from the Chilean coast to La Paz. A few years earlier, the elder de la Alegría had decided that he wanted his kids to see the sea. He’d loaded Manfred and his siblings on a bus headed for Arica, on the coast, and on to Cobija and Antofagasta, Bolivia’s former ports. Such pilgrimages were relatively common — visiting the coast was like taking a trip to the Lincoln Memorial: a way to mark past traumas and future hopes, a patriotic ritual to fit into a vacation with your parents.

As the crow flies, Cobija, Chile, is about 300 miles from La Paz — roughly the distance between Boston and Philadelphia — but the journey takes anywhere between eighteen and twenty-four hours by bus, and the first half follows one of the most perilous roads in the region. When his family finally arrived there, de la Alegría was confused.

“I imagined a glorious beach, the way everyone had told me it would be,” he said. “But when I got there, the sand was much darker than I had expected.” He scowled. Back when it was Bolivia, he explained, the sand must’ve been white, but it had since turned a grayish color. “I said to myself, ‘A Bolivian would take care of this place much better, if it were his territory.’ ”

He pointed to his friends, now lined up and beginning to wail out hymns on their brass instruments.

“Sure, it’s going to be difficult. But nothing is impossible. If the people propose getting back the sea, well, they’ll get back the sea.”

He raised his trumpet, gave me a nod, and jogged off to join the other marchers.

A special session in Bolivia’s congress had been called for the Day of the Sea: there would be a vote related to the I.C.J. case. The vice president, Álvaro García Linera, arrived to the session half an hour late. He was tall, with silver hair and pale skin, a devout Marxist who, as a young man, had spent five years in prison on terrorism charges. (He had been part of a guerrilla army that sabotaged electrical-relay stations in La Paz.)

Some of the representatives in the chamber wore dark suits and loafers. Others wore blue jeans, miners’ helmets, or the traditional skirts and hats of half a dozen indigenous groups. A man from Potosí strode in wearing a stunning turquoise jacket embroidered with an image of a condor lifting a horse into the sky. As they settled in, many of the representatives chewed coca leaves. One congresswoman, in a full skirt and long braids, lunched on a piece of homemade flatbread. When roll was called, she stuffed the crust into a little wooden drawer beneath her desk.

After all the names were read, the three soldiers who had been imprisoned in Chile were invited to enter. They stood at attention, elbows bent, facing the vice president as he commended them for their bravery. As soon as they sat, a brass band popped up from a balcony and banged out the national anthem. The vice president rose and spoke again, overenunciating and making dramatic pauses as if he were telling a story to a room of children; this was his usual way of addressing crowds. He told us about the loss of the sea, the invasion by Chile, the role of greedy foreign businesses, and the many attempts made by Bolivia to find a peaceful resolution that would grant it sovereign access to the sea.

“All those conversations,” he said. “Chats. Meetings. All. With. A. Single. Outcome.” He paused even longer. People shuffled papers. A man blew his nose.

Nothing!” the vice president shouted abruptly, raising one fist. He lowered his voice, adopting again the soothing tone of a storyteller. “Not a single drop of water from the Pacific Ocean that belongs to Bolivia.”

The soldiers fidgeted. The representatives fidgeted. The woman with the crust of bread pulled it from her desk drawer and began to nibble thoughtfully.

“How to get out of this vicious cycle?” the vice president asked. He took a breath before answering his own question. “What we will do now. Is. We will take it to . . . international tribunals!”

It was exactly a quarter past four; right after he spoke, a nearby clock tower clanged once. Everyone sat up a little. “International tribunals” sounded like a physical place. A benevolent country, where everything could be made right. There was clapping, some discussion on the floor, and a vote to move the legal case forward.

I left before the crush of people and got into a cab, a 1992 Toyota Cressida with tweedy homemade seat covers. The driver was an older man in a spotless sweater and pressed slacks, and he was playing Argentine zamba: melancholy, violet-hued guitar music. He introduced himself as Miguel Ángel Pacheco. The conversation quickly turned to the sea.

The Chileans just wanted Bolivia’s natural resources, he said. “And they waited till we were celebrating Carnival to start a war. They got us when we were drinking!”

Pacheco shook his head. Now, he said, everything had to pass through Chile to get to Bolivia. In the Eighties, his wife had started a small business making shirts out of cloth imported from Asia (the cab’s seat covers were her work). Together she and Pacheco had gone overland to Chile to pick up fabric.

“You can bet we paid some big taxes! Chile would lose a lot of money if Bolivia had a sea,” he said. “But we lost the sea in a war. The only way we’ll ever get it back is with a war.”

He went silent for a moment, the crooning and strumming of the zamba crackling through the speakers of the Toyota, which Pacheco had also picked up in Chile. We both knew that no matter how much Bolivia wanted a sea, a war with Chile was inconceivable: Bolivia had neither the technology nor the manpower to fight its better-equipped rival.

“They waited till we were celebrating Carnival!” he repeated. “Those Chileans are petty thieves.”

We’d pulled up to the address I’d given him. I said I was sorry that Chile had treated his country poorly.

“Look at it this way. What if someone were to go into your house while you’re in there dancing and punch you?” he asked. “You wouldn’t like that, right?”

I shook my head to agree.

“Pussies,” he muttered. I pictured a bunch of Chileans crashing a party at Pacheco’s house and punching him while he was dancing with his wife, the seamstress. I opened the car door.

He apologized for his coarse language. “But wait,” he said. “The sea.” Up to then, he’d been talking at my reflection in his rearview mirror. Now he twisted around to make direct eye contact. “I saw the sea when I was in Chile. Now that was interesting. It was this half-bluish green. Some spots were clearer than others, of course, because of the moss.”

“Seaweed” isn’t a common word if you don’t have an ocean.

“On Lake Titicaca, you might go out a distance of a few city blocks, maybe. We’re not used to being able to go out very far. But with the sea, there’s nothing but water, all the way to the horizon.”

Forget trade and development, contact with the outside world, seafood joints, sunbathing on a white-sand beach. It seemed that in Pacheco’s eyes, the most important thing about the sea was that it was limitless, which implied infinite possibility.

Map by Mike Reagan

Map by Mike Reagan

The hardest part about prison life for José Luis Fernández, who at eighteen was the youngest of the three soldiers captured by the Chileans, was that they served so much seafood. He and the others were from Challapata, a small town on Bolivia’s altiplano, and they didn’t know the names of the creatures they’d been served in jail.

“It came from the sea!” he said. “Whether the Chileans eat that stuff, I don’t know. But in Challapata, we eat things like fried pork, or llama. Chicken.”

Fernández pursed his lips and shook his head. He sat on a black vinyl couch in an office at army headquarters, in La Paz. Next to him sat the other two captured soldiers: Fernández’s cousin Augusto Cárdenas and their childhood friend Alex Roque. Cárdenas was taller and wider than Fernández, and had some stubble on his chin. Roque was between the others in size, and his right eye was mottled with white as if someone had spilled milk in it.

The soldiers’ story began like that of many indigenous men their age: a few years earlier, with limited job prospects at home, they’d each dropped out of high school and signed up for the army. On the morning that they were captured, they were on a routine patrol near the border with Chile, which runs along the edge of the Atacama Desert. A desolate expanse of bald hills and dry, high-altitude plains, it’s a perfect spot for car smugglers to run vehicles that they’ve bought cheaply in Chile to avoid paying taxes and import duties. (A lot of stolen cars pass through here as well.) When a group of smugglers approached the soldiers and offered them a bribe in exchange for passage, the sergeant in command, Luis Quino, turned it down. The smugglers fled, and Quino and his nine corporals gave chase.

The smugglers had seven cars; they escaped with four and abandoned three in the middle of the desert. Two of the abandoned cars had keys inside, and six of Quino’s soldiers split off to drive those back to base. The third vehicle — a white Toyota, brand-new — was missing its keys and had a locked steering wheel. Fernández wanted to be a mechanic and knew a bit about cars, so he stayed behind, along with Roque, Cárdenas, and Sergeant Quino, to work on it. Around noon, Quino left to get more tools. An hour later, a truck filled with Chilean soldiers pulled up. The soldiers told Fernández, Roque, and Cárdenas that they’d crossed into Chilean territory, and that they were under arrest.

“We kept trying to talk to our sergeant, asking if we could speak with him first,” said Fernández. “The [Chilean] colonel told us yes, we were going to talk to him right away. And then he just started hurrying things along even more. They put us in a vehicle, and we drove about ten minutes. Then they lit a flare.”

Overhead, a Chilean military plane tagged the spot below as evidence. The soldiers were taken to an airport in Cariquima, Chile, and loaded onto a plane. One hour later, they were in the coastal city of Iquique. The next day, they had a hearing, after which they were brought to the city’s maximumsecurity prison. They were kept separate from the other inmates, and they could meet during the day in a courtyard to play billiards.

The soldiers told me that they hadn’t seen the ocean during their time in Chile. Given that they’d flown to Iquique, which sits on the Pacific, at the edge of a treeless desert, and that they had been moved around both before and after their imprisonment, it was amazing that they hadn’t caught sight of water. When I pressed them on the subject, Fernández glared at me for a moment, then cast his eyes down and sighed.

“The plane had windows, sure, but we didn’t see everything,” he said. “And once they’d freed us, it was house arrest.”

The Bolivian consul in Iquique, who eventually put them up at his house, drove the soldiers around the city a few times in his car. They ate at a restaurant. They got haircuts, and bought soap and razors. They said Iquique was nothing special.

“To me, it was very small, what I saw,” Fernández said.

Cárdenas sat up straighter. “It seemed very small to me too,” he said.

Roque blinked. “From what I saw,” he said slowly, like a student repeating a lesson, “Iquique is small.”

(Iquique has a population of 230,000. Challapata is home to about 8,000 people.)

Eventually, the soldiers admitted they had seen the sea after all.

“But I didn’t see the entire sea. Just a glimpse from the car,” Fernández said. He wrinkled his nose. “And the air by the sea was different.”

Cárdenas raised his hand slightly, as if asking to cut in. “It definitely has a different smell,” he said, backing up his cousin. “Here in Bolivia the air is . . . a bit more pure. There was, well: it had a smell.”

Roque: “I never thought I’d see the sea. I’d never thought about going to Chile. I saw the water. The waves. Nothing more.”

“I’d imagined that the sea was pretty. And yes, the waves, the beaches, it’s all very pretty. The color is sea blue,” Cárdenas said.

Fernández cleared his throat. “In my imagination, the water was like a huge river that just ran and ran along. But when I was in Iquique, and when we glimpsed the ocean, it was different. The water came in with a lot of force. It came in close, and then it pulled back.”

Thirty minutes into my flight from La Paz, I could see the Pacific Ocean in the distance, past the edges of the Atacama Desert. It was as blue and depthless as the Andean sky. Because of the angle of the light that day, and a fine sheen of fog, the horizon had been rubbed out; it was hard to tell what was sky and what was sea.

The plane was headed for Santiago but made two stops in the desert. The first was Iquique. Cargo ships from Asia regularly pull into its port, and today it’s home to one of the biggest duty-free zones in South America. The aisle filled with Chileans heading back to the capital after a weekend of shopping, struggling with bags of clothes, shoes, toys, cosmetics, electronics, liquor, and cologne. The woman with the seat next to mine stuffed the overhead bin with packages, set a box of champagne flutes on her lap, and fell asleep, her arms wrapped tenderly around the glassware.

The second stop, my destination, was the city of Antofagasta, the capital of the region that used to belong to Bolivia. When I arrived, the airport was under construction — a warren of tarps, plywood walkways, and industrial lighting. Although it was nine at night on a Sunday, the place was filled with travelers and businessmen, many of them connected to international mining companies. The nearby Escondida mine is the most productive copper mine in the world; at last count, it was responsible for 2.5 percent of Chile’s GDP.

The next day, I left the hotel and drove up the coast several hours to Cobija. Once Bolivia’s busiest port, the town was now almost empty. Several dozen plywood shacks and a few houses lined a rocky beach. As I drove toward the water from the highway, I passed the ruined doorways of adobe houses, worn by time and weather into nothing but gentle arches, their surfaces stippled with stones. These were the homes of the Bolivians who had once lived here. I drove farther into town, scanning it for human beings. The air was hot and smelled of sand, the desert light so piercing that the town felt only half real.

Finally, I came across six fishermen camped out by the shore. The men were making a stew of the fish parts they wouldn’t be able to sell. One of them sifted through unidentifiable pieces while another, a squinting man with a salt-and-pepper beard, held an onion in his palm and deftly hacked it into tiny particles that rained into a pot atop a gas burner. His name was Lucho Bruna. He glanced up at me, then returned to his task. “You want to know about Cobija?” he asked, never interrupting the rhythm of the knife. “Go talk to Tumba. He’s been here the longest.”

Without getting up, or moving any part of his body but his mouth, another fisherman hollered, “TUMMM . . . BAHHH!” Soon a man approached from a line of plywood houses behind us. Short and solid, his wavy gray hair poked out of a dirty felt hat tied with a blue-and-pink ribbon. He invited me to sit at a plywood table in front of one of the shacks. A pack of dogs took turns nuzzling his bare knees before he shooed them away.

He told me about his own dog, a German shepherd he’d raised from a pup, which had recently disappeared. He was heartbroken. He’d named the dog after himself and said that when a foreign film crew came to Cobija several years ago, to shoot a few scenes for Quantum of Solace, they’d actually used the dog as an extra, and had paid him — the dog — with a roast chicken. Tumba the man seemed to enjoy the thought of Tumba the dog feasting on a whole chicken much more than he cared about his pet’s appearance in a James Bond movie.

I asked him how he had gotten the name Tumba, which means in Spanish what it sounds like in English: tomb.

“Oh, that’s my name.”

“Your given name?”

“Yep.”

I said I didn’t believe that anyone’s mother would name them that. After waving his hand at me as he’d done to the dogs, he sighed and said that when he was a boy, he used to wander around the local graveyard at night, alone, and that everyone had called him Tumba ever since. He’d grown up in Coquimbo, a full day’s travel to the south, where the coastline is dotted with caves that pirates had once used as hideouts. Tumba claimed he was descended from those pirates.

“My grandfather always said, ‘If you can see the ocean, you’ll never go hungry,’ ” he said. “Nothing but ocean for me.”

Tumba had spent his whole life on the coast, save a short stint in Santiago when he lived with one of his brothers. He’d been on the verge of going crazy there, he said, thanks to the double claustrophobia of being inland and in a city. He had quickly returned to the coast. And when the fishing got bad in Coquimbo about ten years ago, Tumba and a friend had decided to try their luck in Cobija.

“Back then there were a lot of people here,” he said. “Almost sixty, I’d say. Now there’s barely twenty. And that’s on a good day. More stray dogs than people here now.” He swatted at a mutt that resembled a whippet.

Antofagasta had started to grow when Bolivia lost the coast. Farther up the coast was another city, named Tocopilla, which generated electricity for the nearby mines. If you wanted groceries or a doctor or pretty much anything other than fish and solitude, you had to live near Antofagasta or Tocopilla. Cobija grew smaller and more deserted. Now, even Tumba and his friends were only temporary residents, moving between Cobija and another village farther south.

“Come on, I want to show you something,” Tumba said.

He led me a few yards away, to a low, rotting pier, and gestured for me to duck under. The day’s catch was strung up like glistening bouquets, the fish pierced through their gaping mouths and hanging from loops of twine knotted to the underside of the pier. They were big, silvery conger eels with leopard spots, and wide, pink vieja, dozens of them, covered in old shirts to hide them from the sun. Eventually a truck would come to collect them for delivery to Antofagasta. Tumba walked me back to where the other men were cooking.

“That’s what the Bolivians lost,” he said, flicking his thumb back at the pier. The fishermen laughed. Bruna tossed something fatty into the pot, and as it sizzled, the flame flared and curled around the bottom.

I asked the men if they could imagine not having a sea, like the Bolivians. They stopped laughing. Why the hell, they wanted to know, would they ever not have a sea? I asked why they thought the Bolivians wanted a sea.

“I don’t know,” said Tumba, grinning at the other men. “So they can go swimming?”

The fishermen laughed again. I didn’t say so, but that was exactly what the soldiers had told me they wanted to do.

“I’d go to see the beach, to swim, to bathe,” Roque had said, his voice cracking a little.

“Yes, that, and I’d also like to walk along the beach,” said Fernández.

“I’d like to hang out there with my friends,” said Cárdenas.

There was just one condition: all three said they would only consider returning to the sea if it were Bolivia’s sea. As long as the ocean belonged to Chile, they would never go near it again.

I flew back to La Paz. On the final approach, we passed over Lake Titicaca, which shone a silvery gray, like bird feathers. Clouds cast shadows across the surface of the lake, on the patchwork of irrigated green fields surrounding it, and on the pale-brown plains farther off. In the middle distance rose the Andes, dotted with snow.

When I got back to the city, I tried again to join the armada for a voyage, and got an appointment with the Bolivian minister of defense. He was a polite man with a square jaw who eventually gave me permission to go on a ship — on the condition that I not ask anyone a single question about the impending legal case.

“Part of our strategy,” he said.

“What strategy is that?” I asked.

“I can’t say,” he said. “That’s also part of our strategy. You understand.” I agreed not to ask about the case.

The voyage was set for Good Friday. When I left La Paz around three in the morning, the highway was already filled with migrants to the capital who were returning home to their villages for the holiday. Battered vans were stuffed with people, their belongings in fabric bundles tied to the rooftops. Drivers slalomed around the potholes in the road. By midday everyone would be having picnics and watching local soccer matches. I wondered whether the soldiers were back in Challapata.

It was not yet dawn when I pulled up to the dock at Guaqui, on the southern shore of the lake. With the car shut off, the only light came from the side of a 117-foot catamaran, where three portholes glowed softly. I heard the low voices of sailors and the quiet lapping of the water. We took off soon after I’d been hustled on board, moving into the darkness of the lake, then gliding smoothly, swanlike, across its flat surface. Not a wave in sight.

One of the sailors, Javier Noriega, a serious young man with the face of a boxer, was instructed to keep an eye on me. He showed me a little berth, with two beds and a freezing bathroom, where I could leave my things. I closed the door and put on all the clothing I had: the high-altitude dawn was so cold my skin burned. Upstairs dozens of men were bustling around, the junior officers in camouflage, the senior officers, like Noriega, in black jackets and watch caps. Most were hanging damp towels over chairs to dry. I asked whether they had been swimming. Noriega smiled and said no. A short, elderly sailor in an apron served a breakfast of coffee and fried-egg sandwiches. The men paused to eat and chat, then went back to work. Besides drying towels, they were setting up tables, unfolding chairs, and even putting bouquets of lilies into vases. I had no idea what was going on. I’d expected the sailors to be doing sailor things: suiting up in scuba gear and launching backward off the boat, not arranging flowers. During breakfast I’d been talking with a sailor named Fernando Molina, who was friends with Noriega. I asked him to explain.

“There’s no budget for running the ship,” he said. “So when we’re not using it for training, we take out tourists on it to earn money. That way, it’s self-sustaining.” The sailors were preparing the ship for a paid pleasure cruise.

Noriega came over to Molina and began to discuss how many towels and sachets of shampoo each guest should get. They went off together to inspect bunk rooms. Cumbia began to play from the stereo system, and a pair of cadets tested the microphones for karaoke. I could see wooden fishing skiffs on the lake and centuries-old farming terraces on the shore. Eventually the Tiquina naval base came into view, marked by a miniature yellow-and-white-striped lighthouse. By then, the boat was nearly ready. The tablecloths lay perfectly flat, the chairs were covered in silky fabric, the bouquets of lilies were arranged in the middle of the tables. The karaoke system had been put on standby, and for now, the stereo played a CD of Eighties classics.

When I asked Molina and Noriega where they got their nautical experience, they were quick to point out that they had operated boats on the ocean, the real ocean. They told me that Bolivia had agreements that let its sailors train on Peruvian and Argentine boats.

I asked the men if there was a big difference between their training on the ocean and their work on the lake. Noriega and Molina looked at each other for a moment.

“No, not really,” said Noriega, slowly.

“Yeah, basically, it’s almost the same,” Molina said.

“Yeah,” said Noriega. “Almost.”

We all got quiet. As we cruised into port, the song “Maneater” came on the stereo.

Bolivia might prevail in its legal case; Peru recently went to the I.C.J. and won back some maritime territory it lost to Chile in the War of the Pacific. For now, there’s joy in the possibility of a win in court. But if Bolivia fails this time, after having taken its cause to the highest possible authority, it will be much harder to sustain the collective dream of an ocean. If Bolivia’s ambition to regain its coastline has been a source of pain, it has also allowed the country to imagine, for more than a century, the possibility of something beautiful and mysterious that is always just beyond reach.

Before he became a sailor, or went through his training on a borrowed piece of ocean, or manned the ship that cruises Lake Titicaca, Javier Noriega saw the former coast of Bolivia on a trip to Chile with his family.

“When we got there, it was already night,” he said, “You could still hear the waves, though, and smell the ocean. We knew the sea was there. When we took photos, of course there was nothing. Just blackness. But we knew it was there anyway.”

is a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and a consulting editor for Radio Ambulante.

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February 2015