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  • I'm in La Paz this week, where the popular local beer is a decent lager called Paceña, brewed here at 12,000 feet and sold in the tall bottles I'm accustomed to calling "bombers." Earlier this week, one of my hostel-mates took it upon himself to explain the etymology of the name. "It comes from pasado," he said, offering me a swig from his bottle. "You know, 'the past.' So a paceña is someone who's tied to the past or obsessed with the past or maybe just living in it."

    That sounded great to me, but it didn't take long to realize that it was bullshit. Paceña is actually a demonym for La Paz, meaning that a native of this city is called a paceño or a paceña. I've always thought that demonyms were cool, and I enjoy collecting them. In the last ten years, I've been a Mainer, a Missoulian, a Josephite, and a Minneapolitan, among other things. In recent weeks, I've rubbed shoulders with limeños, cusqueños, and guayaquileños.

    Still, I like my hostel-mate's concept, and I wish his definition were true. A "paseño" would be the closest, made-up Spanish word for the idea he was trying to describe, and it occurs to me that this is exactly what I am on this trip — a "paseño," with one foot in 2012 and another alongside Hunter Thompson back in the early sixties.

    The color photo above is one I took in Cusco last week. The black-and-white image is one that Thompson shot fifty years ago. Thompson's photo was published in Gonzo, AMMO Books' collection of Thompson's photography, and ten prints of it were for sale at LA's M+B gallery during a tie-in exhibition in 2006-2007. In both instances, the only location given is "South America."

    I recognized the photo as a companion piece to a lead that Thompson wrote in 1963, the opening lines of an article about indigenous marginalization. "When the cold Andean dusk comes down on Cuzco," he writes, "the waiters hurry to shut the venetian blinds in the lounge of the big hotel in the middle of town. They do it because the Indians come up on the stone porch and stair at the people inside. It tends to make the tourists uncomfortable...."

    Finding the exact spot of the photo didn't take long, thanks to the conspicuous colonial belfries that characterize the Cusco skyline. Architectural details like this make it easy to be a "paseño" on this continent. Whereas development has historically outpaced preservation in the US, both have moved at a relative snail's pace across much of South America. And from the pre-Colombian ruins to the colorful ziggurats of the conquistadors, the continent's historic sites tend to be both durable and distinct.

    In a few different towns — Bogota, Cali, Guayauqil — I've dug up whole collections of urban then-and-now comparisons like this one. The cities have changed a great deal, of course, but I'm repeatedly struck by the ubiquity of these anchor structures, how nearly every photo illustrates a kind of historical ballast.

    Thompson was a great admirer of William Faulkner, another "paseño" whose famous quote just seems to ring a bit truer here: "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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