Uyuni Blues

When one is traveling it’s easy to see how one small decision can lead to others, your choices swirling together, one following another: the ebb and flow of your life as it washes against time. Perhaps our decisions are so based on past decisions that we hardly even decide and our lives are more like a game of Snakes and Ladders. If so, I had just landed on a snake that stretched half the continent: since Lima I had been dropping southwards at increasing velocity. Bolivia was the country I had been most excited to visit and here I was boarding a bus South after a single week. I could visualize those at home interrogating me about why I chose to miss the backpacker’s paradise of pristine rainforests and one dollar hostels. I felt guilty because I visualized things from a moment looking back. Later, in Argentina, I emailed a fellow traveler about meeting up on the road: “Things look bad for our heroes,” I wrote. To which she replied: “We are not heroes and our lives are not stories.” Though we did see each other again in Buenos Aires she was right: seeing your life as part of a larger story can either make you feel either too secure or too insecure but rarely just the correct amount. But at the time I felt as if I were going against some greater plan, ignoring a list of things I “ought” to do.

In Bolivia the roads are not paved and as we bumped our way through the desert dust filled the bus, covering everything. Some windows were stuck partly open and at every turn the couple in front of me would get a dust shower. The kid next to me would not speak but would nod or shake his head. Are you going to Uyuni? Do you live there? Do you go to school? He played possum and eventually I let him alone.

There was a girl on the bus who is dressed in a red jumpsuit. She also wore a red cap jauntily on her head. She was very stylish and pretty by Bolivian standards. She was also a master at Bolivian busmanship. She had two seats to herself and chose the one near the aisle. People would try to sit by her but she would make her legs rigid and would not move them. “I think it’s easier if you sit on that seat over there” she would say to them. Invariably, as they stumbled off confused, they would find that to be the case.

Before the bus trip I asked the man at the kiosk how much the bus cost: 25BS. At the end of the trip the conductor, a short man with aviator glasses, came and asked me for my money. Change being hard to come by, I wanted to pay 30BS and get change. I held out my money and asked how much it cost. He looked to see how much I had and then said: “30 Bolivianos”. I told him I’d heard it was only 25. He said: “Well, it’s 30.” I gave him 25 and told him: “That’s the correct amount, right?” He winks at me and we both laugh.

Uyuni is a nasty little tourist town with only one thing to do: take the tour of the Salar de Uyuni. These tours last 3 to 4 days while you drive around a magnificent salt flat in a Land Rover, witnessing the wonders it has to offer. There are 8 people on a typical tour: 6 tourists, the driver/guide and his cook (which is usually his wife). If you go a tour company they will form a group of 6 for you but you have more bargaining power if you already have a group of 6 when you arrive. Trying to form this group was my first order of business when I got off the bus. It was about 3pm so I had plenty of time.

There were other tourists on the bus and I asked some of them what they intended to do. They avoided me in a kind of ambivalent way that I have only seen people do in Bolivia. I felt like I was trying to sell them something. Many tourists and backpackers are like this in Bolivia. I have no idea why. But if there’s one good way to find tourists it’s with the Lonely Planet. The Lonely Planet is the first word in travel guides and, since 90% of backpackers use it, it’s the best way to find other tourists quickly.

The Lonely Planet is a large guidebook of about 700 hundred thick pages: they did not want their book falling apart and prepared it for extreme conditions. I do not enjoy carrying this book around towns with me because of the weight and also because it’s like having a big sign above your head saying: please try to sell me something I don’t want. When I arrive at a new place, usually the first thing I do is tear out the applicable pages of my Lonely Planet and just carry those in my pocket.

I was crouched on the ground by the bus ripping apart a book when I heard a voice: “Have you got a tour agency. What agency do you have?” I ignored the voice. I did not want to look for tours yet and I continued tearing my book. “Hey. Excuse me. I asked what tour agency you have.” “Calm down,” I reply, not turning round, “I’m trying to do something here.” “You don’t have to tear apart your book. You can just tell me what agency you have,” the voice told me. I stand up and turn around to find a man in military fatigues. “Who do you work for?” I ask. “I’m the tourist police,” he answers.

I was relieved not to have to deal with a salesman and, having retrieved the pages I needed, I told him that I had no tour agency and asked the man if he had one to recommend. “Cheap or expensive?” he asked. I could smell his breath: pure vodka. “Well” I said, as I always do in these situations, “Good value. Comfortable price.” “But there are so many!” he said. I affirmed. “Far too many!” he said again. But now he was interrupted by a man in a black shirt. At first I thought he was harassing this officer for being drunk on the job but it turned out that he too was drunk and was trying to stabilize himself by resting his head on his friend’s shoulder. The cop kept pushing this man away, stumbling as he did so. “I can’t speak for these businesses” he said, pointing to the bus with his left hand, “they might be good and they might be bad. But,” he said, motioning towards a pizza restaurant with his right, “these are ok.” I thanked the man and, having performed his duties for the day, he hobbled off with his friend.

There are 65 tourist agencies in Uyuni and they all offer the same tour for more or less the same price and varying levels of service. They will all try to cheat you and it is impossible to know what you are getting. They are probably not even sure of they services they intend to provide until they are on the road. How did I choose? I chose the first one I walked into. I had no real criterion for deciding anything. I was a lamb and they were the wolves…

That night I hung out with some fellow tourists over a pizza and got to play a real steel string guitar that someone from Sweden had brought. Talking to the people reconfirmed my fear that most folks traveling for six months or more either had problems to keep them from home or were depressed.

I spent “a lot of money” that night ($7) but it was worth it. It’s weird how life is relative, money is relative.

I went to bed that night, eagerly awaiting the tour, the last thing I would do before leaving Bolivia.

sliding on to…?

I woke up the next morning and laid in bed for 2 hours worrying about the past, present and future. Is this trip the right thing to do? Should I be at home in the “real” world instead out trying to find it?

It was at that point that I remembered back in cozy summer Sacramento I had said many times I wanted to avoid the cold and that I would escape the Andes as soon as I could. I had spent almost a month in the Andes (which are amazing!) and was feeling all the effects I had feared. It occurred to me that I could just cut Bolivia short and go to Argentina via Uyuni…

I’m torn between the two choices and decide to flip a coin. I flip it but then am confused which sides is heads and which is tails: the money is different here. I flip again and it comes up for staying in Bolivia. I am filled with worry. As I walk to the bus terminal the sun shines down with ferocity yet somehow cannot manage the strength to melt the ice on the late morning ground.

I walk past the Uyuni part of the bus terminal, ice crunching beneath my feet, and go to ask the bus times to my next Bolivian stop: Cochabamba. Uyuni would be a perfect idea but I worry that Uyuni is considered an “Almost Wonder of the World” (along with Machu Pichu). How could I visit an “Almost Wonder of the World” with no pictures to bring home?!?

I decide just to ask the times for a bus to Uyuni. A bus leaves in 10 minutes. I buy a ticket and 20 minutes later (Bolivian buses are inveriably late…) I am on my way to what I believe are warmer, southern climes.

and it was there my troubles began (long version with kierk)

From my journal:

I just bought a coke and am sitting by Lake Titicaca with the most spectacular view imaginable. The thing Corona commercials are made of. I could hope for shade but where in Bolivian Andes the sparse brush doesn’t have that occupation. Instead its job is to indicate where there is dirt (by occupying it) and where there is only rock (by avoiding it). There is not much foliage. The air is crisp and cool and the sun, while not exactly hot, is powerful. In the distance the snow covered mountain peaks are visible. At almost 4000m high they are not that far off. A group of workmen lounge near me. I pay with a disturbingly large 20BS bill (worth $2.50) the woman struggles to find change and a workman provides it.

But all was not well. It was on the island that I began to have dreams.

That night I dreamed that I had returned to Seattle. Somehow I was in seattle. My aunt had died and I was sleeping in her bed but somehow I was calling people to hang out with them I had trouble dialing the numbers, I had trouble getting a connection. My ex girlfriend was pregnant with my child and I remember feeling like I was going to have to try be a good father and always be in this life. This did not excite me. She was so happy to be pregnant but I had somehow forgotten she was, which made me feel bad. I felt like I needed to call her but either she couldn’t, wouldn’t pick up or I couldn’t call her. My aunt had had 3 different phones by her bed so people could call her but they were in a tangled mess, impossible to use. On one some of the numbers didn’t work. On another the cord would come loose. The third worked fine but I could never remember which one was the good one.

I was able to call my brother to hang out and he was really aloof. “Oh. Yeah? Fine…” “You want to go out to lunch?” “Fine… Where…?” “I don’t know, you’re the one who knows this place.” “Oh…” He was distracted, doing computer stuff. “Aren’t there some great lunch deals?” “Tons…” “Ok, what’s a good one?” Then he told me where he usually went and we decided to meet. The atmosphere was light…

Weightless…

This was not the first time I have had this dream. When I was 16 I visited South Africa for two weeks with my parents. Also I was taking antimalerial drugs and they enhanced the dreams I would have. I remember that every night for week I dreamed I was calling my friends but they could not hear my voice over the phone and would hang up, thinking it was a prank call. I would dream of speaking to them seperated by glass.

I remember feeling frustrated like I did when I began travelling in South Africa.

Calling. Calling. No one listening…

—-

A kite soars high in the air looking down on the fields below. By their nature kites have a paradoxical relationship with their string: it is their very attachment to the ground that gives them the ability to soar above it. How must a kite feel about the chain around his leg, does it dream of being let go, flying forever?

As I write this I remember that before I left an ex-girlfriend gave me a kite that I decided not to bring because it reminded me of her.

—-

The dreams shook me. And I began to be filled with self doubt. I called home and it helped. But only a little.

The philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote that there were three different modes for living a meaningful life: the aesthetic, the moral and the religious.

The aesthetic life is based on the physical. The goal is happiness and the aesthetic person survives by feeding those pleasure centers of the brain. And why not? After all there is nothing else! Sadness is wasted energy. Instead the aesthetic person moves from project to project, never “hoping to change the world” for such changes are meaningless as any. For the aesthetic person all meaning is relative and thus “changing the world” in any objective sense is also meaningless. Instead the goal of the aesthetic person is to “make the most of life” by measuring progress against his own standards. Of course objectively speaking this too has no meaning and sometimes the aesthetic person has “bad dreams”…

The moral person believes in an objective truth, in ideals, and in a world with rules, standards and right. For the moral person there is a “better” way to do things and in a given situation a set of “right” things to do. This person believes in progress, in objective goodness and possibly in evil too. To the moral person you can strive, perhaps through education or willpower, to be a “better” person. Perhaps the moral person does not even pretend to know or understand this objective truth and morality in the universe but he does believe it exists. Perhaps we do not know the standards by which we will be judged, but there are standards. But he also accepts that we can never achieve those standards: they exist only as a goal to be reached for, as a yoga instructor might tell you to “reach for the stars” in order to “improve” our posture. His is a sad lot, knowingly striving for an unachievable world.

Finally, the religious person also believes in a world of objective meaning, of rightness and justice. But, unlike the moral person, the religious person truly has faith that the perfection he strives towards will come to pass. He has utter fath in the world and that the world is as he understands it. The aesthetic clings to nothing but himself, the moral has his rules, but in his time of need the religious has rock solid conviction in his hour of need.

To illustrate the differences Kierkegaard uses an analogy of three nights in love with a princess. To illustrate the differences Kierkegaard uses an analogy of three nights in love with a princess. The aesthetic knight is rejected by the princess. ‘you’re not a prince’ she says. ‘i only date princes’. he loves her but realizes that their love will never happen. he leaves disappointed and eventually dates the millers daughter and they are happy together, though he always reads the papers to find out what is up with the princess. Sometimes he dreams about her though he cannot tell his wife.

falling…

That night, August 28, two months after I set out, things came to a head. After Lima my trip had become more emotionally difficult. After I entered Bolivia I had been consistently dreaming of calling friends and having them not hear me, not answering the phone. I dreamed of talking to people through glass, of being in a car driving away and not having them hear me over the engine. There were things I needed to tell them that they were not worried about hearing. This was not the first time I had had dreams like this. I had almost the same ones when I visited South Africa for the first time at age 16.

For the first time on my trip I was homesick. I do not know if it caused the physical illness or visa versa or if they merely fed on each other. The truth is that I was tired from the cold and the altitude. I also had been eating poor food and sleeping only a few hours a night. And I was cold every night. For some reason I was not taking care of myself and the dreams got worse.

That night my camera and wallet were either stolen or somehow left in a taxi, I will never know. It happened because I was worn down and my defenses were simply nonexistent. I wasn’t even aware that I was missing anything until the next day.

Initially hardest blow was my camera. It was something to fight boredom. It was a conversation starter. It was an amazing recorder of my journey and I lost over 400 photos of the festival alone. But most importantly through it I could objectify the world around me. “It’s a pretty picture,” I could tell myself as I snapped away. It was a filter and I used it to give a lot of my trip direction. I did not know any of this until I lost it and in it I had lost my confidence.

I felt as if I were drowning.

Whenever I get this feeling I remember taking my PADI diving certification. A SCUBA diver has neutral buoyancy in water and controls his upward and downward movements (his buoyancy) by expanding or contracting his lungs, in other words by breathing. It is breathing itself that allows the divers to move effortlessly through the water. You only sink when you exhale and you only rise when you inhale.

It is almost impossible to get a new diver underwater for the first time without lots of extra weights because the new diver refuses to exhale! I was no exception though with practice I learned to fight the instinct to hold my breath underwater. Then on my first dive I was down 18 meters, the limit for beginner divers, and saw a big shark about 30 feet away. The shark was really really big. There was nothing I could do to fight my reaction, though it was the opposite of what I should have done: my eyes bulged and I took a big breath and held it, shooting straight to the top like a frightened cork. I was smart enough to breathe out almost immediately but the damage was done and I couldn’t relax enough to go down again for another 10 minutes.

Here a knee-jerk reaction took hold of me in a similar way. I couldn’t ignore that something was wrong but as I wandered the streets with folks in traditional dress leftover from the festival, I was confused as to what I should do.

It is one thing to vacation for a month but it is quite another to travel for an extended period of time. In order to travel for a year you must break off a lot of everyday ties and close up shop back home for awhile. This adds a certain sense of weightlessness and planlessness that is necessary for a long trip to succeed.

I sat in a greasy spoon diner watching local folks suck on coffee and down greasy hamburgers and as I often do when I’m in a tough spot I began focusing on plans. From how I would get past the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama to the question of forging onward tickets for countries that required them, everything was pulled into question. What would be my route to Brazil? Did I have enough money to travel for that long? I thought about how I needed onward tickets out of so many countries in order to enter them, would I have to forge them? If I wanted a new camera then the cheapest option was Paraguay, the shady smugglers’ capital of South America. How would I get there? What were the symptoms of Dengue Fever (which is rampant there)? In my weakened state everything was fair game.

I was lonely and alone in a foreign country. Perhaps this is what I had wanted from the beginning.

Potosí: Festival Day 2

I decide to head to fiesta. The groups on the second day are far more professional. One school has done something hp and new. They have dressed in rags with chains and blackened their faces, perhaps to represent slaves or miners or both. One girl in rags wants to dance with me but my hands are filled with a green jello desert with creme fresh. As I watched the group dance away I wish I had said yes but there was something that had held me back. These days something was always holding me back.

Street vendors honk their Harpo Marx bicycle horns and a woman walks by wearing an umbrella strapped to her head to block the sun. Fireworks explode in the clear blue sky.

In one group a girl stands out, dressed completely in pink while everyone else is in purple. She is far and away the best dancer. The reporters and videomen clamor around her. Young men offer her drinks, a beer? For one day at least she is a moviestar. Some of the dancers are shy of the cameras, others mug and pose. Obviously for some this is their moment to shine in front of the whole community in their borrowed finery. For others they have been pushed into ridiculous outfits and forced to dance like a circus bear or worse. Both only reinforce their fates.

It is like any country festival in the United States only better. The food is fresher and the prices are hardly inflated. If you don’t like the prices you can walk into any supermarket that lines the street and buy whatever you want. Beer, at least, is the same as supermarket prices. It is also drunk openly by all. There are no wristbands but I see no children drinking. Everyone seems involved and knows what to do and the event itself is free to all though you can pay if you want nice seats to sit in. There is beautiful kind of informality in it that is, perhaps, only possible in countries where lawsuits and regulations, if existing, are ignored. There seems to be no pressure to it: it is less a show and more of a community event.

The indigenous folks wear their traditional clothes and sit quietly on the sidewalk or sell things. The modern, western dressed crowd is usually very involved in the show. I think they are mostly out of towners in for the weekend. They shout, clap, and drink beer for fun. The indigenous crowd also drinks beer but they seem to drink it because tradition requires it. They do it slowly and with solemnity as if watching a Tennessee Williams play.

It could be because they have less money but they also don’t seem to buy that many things. Except sweets. They love sweets, popsicles and ice cream. An old Indian woman sits across from me, her face wrinkled like a prune. She sits among the folds of her skirt, shaded under her wide brimmed hat from the 1800s. She sucks on an ice cream and smiles a crinkly grin.

Bolivian Magic Show

He begins with a troll doll with a string threaded through it. Comically it slowly rises and falls, rises and falls, with no seen force. Then he has a spectator tie a knot in a hankerchief and, in the magicians hand, the knot disappears. He explains that there is nothing special about his hands or, for that matter, any part of his body. He has only learned these tricks through training. To illustrate this point he pulls out a popup book of anatomy and begins ttalking about where babies come from. He’s proud to be a man he tells the crowd and then he pulls out a large machete and nun chucks. After performing a few karate kicks he returns to the point that he has normal hands and feet just like anyone else only can perform magic tricks. He continues pulling things out of his grab bag of tricks. Next are condoms, male and female. He starts talking about how sex is good but you should be very careful. The next item to come out of his bag is a stack of newspaper clippings: “Woman leaves man because of no sex.” He shifts gears to talking about taking care of your prostate and has newspaper clippings with color photos of inflamed prostrate glands as well as full color glossies showing operations. He shows pictures of people urinating through catheters and other types of tubes. The magic show is forgotten and the freakshow is in full swing. The crowd, all men, peer to get a closer look at the horrific pictures. He explains the biology of anything and everything. Is everyone wondering what I am wondering? Where is he going with this?

He gets folks to huddle around closer to hide the pictures from passersby. A girl dressed entirely in purple comes to see what the fuss is about, stays 2 minutes and then wanders off. I wonder to myself: in a catholic country how people learn about sex? In school? From parents? The show ends as suddenly as it begun: “Thanks for watching, folks, I’ll be performing this same show tomorrow. Tell your friends.”

I felt compelled to approach him afterwards. I ask him what the point of the show is. “Usually I sell vitamins.” He tells me, “but not today.” He sees himself on a crusade fighting poor Bolivian sexual health. “This is a Christian country” he says sadly, “people don’t even know what tantric sex is…”

Potosi: Festival de los Cau’tillos

I arrived exhausted in freezing Potosi and my companion, Carlos, took me to look for hostals. They were all full except one. They were all triple price as well. After an hour or so of searching I took a nap before venturing out to explore the city a bit more.

Festival de Los Cautillos

Festival de Los Cautillos

For 50BS ($7) you can buy a seat for the weekend. At the end of the street is a gate and behind that gate are the dancers, the processions. The first day are the local schools: amateurish and cute. They have been preparing for this for months, longer maybe. Every few minutes you see dancers dressed to the hilt in feathered caps that look like industrial sized dream catchers walk arm in arm with a parent to behind the gate.

The streets of Potosi were lined with empty bleachers, each marked with seat numbers. A million noises crowd the air: “Seats! Seats! Get your seats!” “Beer! Only 8BS! Ice cold!” Vendors raced around trying to get their products sold. People’s cares drop away as the groups prance and twirl down the streets under a blue banner reading:

NO ABUSES DEL ALCOHOL
SI QUIERES DISFRUTAR MUCHOS CAU’TILLOS
HONORABLE GOBIERNO MUNICIPAL
TRABAJANDO EN DISAROLLO HUMANO

At first there is the feeling of a school play, the children sometimes simply promenading, not dancing, down the mile long gamut lined with spectators. They munch on food and drinks and talk to eachother and look fearfully at the thousands of people in the bleachers. But as the day progresses and more beer is drunk the kids get into the show and just do their thing. They have seen from those who’ve gone before that nothing bad will happen to them.

Festival de Los Cautillos
An old woman, face wrinkled a gorilla mask I just saw in the parade, sits in the same place she did 5 hours earlier. Candied apples. A group dressed in pink sun hats shouts “Vamos chicas!” in drunken enthusiasm.

A group passes in hats that were probably the height of fashion in 1492. Each group is accompanied by its own marching band. Some bands are the main event, hamming it up with their styles of “marching”. As the dancers go down the street they sometimes pull their boyfriends or girlfriends (or possibly just people they wish were) out of the crowds to dance with them. It is all very informal and endearing. Between each group the street fills with crowds and with women selling snacks from trays and pushcarts. A boy walks down the street with a jug and some plastic dixie cups: “hot coffee! hot coffee!” In those thin cups I hope it was only tepid.

I have never seen finer costumes than in this festival. There were more costumes than I would have thought existed in Bolivia. There were, I guess, 500 groups of 30 dancers and a full marching band each. All were dressed in absolute finary. The girls usually in what the Brits lovingly refer to as FM boots and a corset and lace skirts. The boys were dressed as all kinds of objects ranging from alters to large condors.

 

Each group has its own personality. There is a band of dancers who sort of hop along to a steady repetative beat. Then there are some groups who have a “spirit” who embodies the group. Sometimes it is a particular dancer or a person dressed as an animal. One group had man on a horse who swung a dead animal around his head while screaming

Festival de Los Cautillos

As his group dances down the street, an old man with a symbolic traditional water jug in one hand and a regular water bottle in the other walks among them, tired. It has been a long day and the sun is setting but the pink hats cry for more. The sequen covered costumes glint off the setting sun.

Festival de Los Cautillos

 

These photos have been borrowed from a very nice girl named Fiona who I met in the Salar de Uyuni. Her photopage is at: http://05.fotopic.net

running…

I sat in the plaza Alonzo Mendoza La Paz whirled around me. I had forgotten to eat and my blood sugar had dropped. I spent the day in front of the computer, typed 5000 words to update my blog. In the park children played on a grey concrete moniument. On it is a fresco of the conquistadors and the Incas and on the top is a bronze statue of a conquistador with knee-high boots, a funny Spanish helmet. He is comical, straight out of Don Quijote. In one hand he holds a book, the other is on his sword. It is getting late and the photographers who line plazas like this the world over have vanished. The children run their hands over the fresco as if attempting to understand something, as if the monument could tell them something. They play, respectfully, under the gaze of Alonzo Mendoza. In Peru plazas are beautiful. The community comes out and walks around them at night, greeting each other, lovers sitting and whispering to each other on the benches. In Bolivia the plazas are concrete affairs, usually locked after dark to prevent people from sleeping in them.

I chatted on Yahoo Messenger for the first time since I’ve been abroad. I chatted with people back home. “Are you doing exciting things?” I realized I have no way to measure that anymore.

Last night I bought a stuffed potato on the street. A man in a suit introduced himself to me:

MAN: Where are you from?
ME: The USA
MAN: What do you do there? Your profession?
ME: I was a high school teacher. History and politics.
MAN: I am an assistant minister in parliament. In the government building. I also sell alpaca wool.
ME: I hear that it’s expensive.
MAN: Now always. I want to export it but I have no contacts outside Bolivia.
ME: Oh. Maybe you could give me your email.
MAN: Would you like to visit the government building? Tourists are not allowed but you could come as my guest. Here are both my work numbers. Tomorrow is perfect. We never do anything on Fridays.

I wanted to call him but I lost his number. This was how things were going for me at the time. Everything was golden but I kept missing connections. Asynchronicity.

I decided to go to Potosi. Move on. There was a folkloric festival there. It was South and I had intended to go to the North, the jungle. In travelling and in life one frequently makes decisions which lead to others.

On the bus I sat next to Carlos, a friend in had made in La Paz. He was a student, studying to be a CPA. The bus left late as it had sold too many tickets. This was standard practice and it was usual for some people to sit in the aisle. But it was against the national bus standards and a representative told the women sitting in the aisle to leave. After some arguing and passive resistance the police were called and arrived with a “What’s all this then?”. The women left but they didn’t take some large bags with them. It turns out the bags were just for using as a bed but the police said we could not leave until the aisle was clear. For some reason no one would just move the bags off the bus. There was a stalemate. Until the policemen had to be called away for something else. Immediately the bus pulled out of the station, bed in the aisle and all, and we headed off to Potosi. However, by now there was already a group of people standing to protest the bad business tactics of the bus company.

Carlos and I set to discussing differences in culture and politics. He told me about how in some parts of Bolivia they use “Bos” and “Che” like the Argentinians. Then another uproar began.

At first it seemed just that a woman was sick. Then she was very sick. People began to gather in the aisle, dodging the bed, and asking for items like water, smelling salts, medicine. Everyone felt bad for her. Then, somehow, it was discovered that she did not have a proper ticket and the faction at the front of the bus (who had relaxed since the beginning) began to see red. They stood up again and began chanting. “Throw her off the bus!” they shouted. A faction in the back, near the woman, took her part: “She is ill! She needs a hospital! You are heartless people!” they hollered back. It was bedlam. After 15 minutes of this the bus driver finally did the only thing he could do: he turned off all the lights in the bus and everyone had to sit down, for safety’s sake. Eventually everyone was quiet again. The bus sped on into the night

Night buses are the hardest parts of travelling. I sit in the dark, haunted by thoughts of home. I cannot sleep.

La Paz means "The Peace"

A baby on the bus is crying. Out the window an Indian woman sits by a burning trash can by the side of the road. She is not using it for warmth. She just sits by it. Another Indian woman stands by the side of the road surrounded by doors torn off their hinges. They are of all colors, shapes sizes. All destroyed. Does she sell them to people with broken houses?

La Paz is built into a canyon and is really a city of two cities. We are in upper La Paz, which is very high up. As we wind down the canyon you can see the brown houses with multicoloured roofs built into the hills. Way down in the valley of the canyon skyscrapers raise up. At the outskirts of the city the streets are paved with rocks but as we get closer to the center the rocks become black gravel bricks and finally asphalt. The buildings go from adobe, blending into the hillside, to red brick or concrete.

I immediately notice the political graphiti. Somehow Peruvians seem to keep their country clean of it but in Bolivia, perhaps as a result of the recent protests, it is everywhere. “THE VAMPIRE MINISTERS WILL PAY!” etc.

THE KILLERS OF OF DR. VITALIAN WILL PAY WITH BLOOD

THE KILLERS OF OF DR. VITALIAN WILL PAY WITH BLOOD


I recently finished the excellent book, Inca Cola: A Traveller’s Tale of Peru. The author travels for a few weeks in Peru and Bolivia in the 1970s. He writes about the political climate:

There is a paradoxical feeling of permanence about Bolivia’s turmoil It is a durable sort of fragility, for, in a way, they have hit the bottom. You feel that it was ever thus and life, now, will go on.

Peru had been strangely different. It was a feeling that life might stop going on, for quite a large number of people, and quite soon. There is a bourgeoisie in Lima and Arequipa – a class which ha done well enough to have something to lose yet not so well as to be able to take it with them on a jet to the US and a Miami bank account. They are stuck and they face a peasantry who are till able to hope and who have a sense of justice to be affronted. These are fertile soils for the revolutionary left and the populist right. It could yet come to civil war between them.

In Bolivia the hateful gods of political and economic blight take their human sacrifices daily, predictably, according to some bleak and unspoken pact with history. Peru has made no such peace with its gods. There is a threat in Peru, that the elements of conflict might turn finally and face eachother. All that threatens Bolivia is a continued threat of despair.

Inca Cola, pg. 109

We get off the bus near the cemetery. It stands with beautiful arches, all the dead buried above the ground in mausoleums. I reach for cities to compare this one with: the hills of San Francisco? Descending into the crater makes San Francisco’s hills seem like speed bumps. The roads spiral in a kind of switchback pattern. You wind up or down, never across and you could never hope to keep control of a vehicle headed straight down. The picturesque vibrancy of the markets of Naples or Old Jerusalem? All of La Paz is an open market and every street corner lined with merchants selling everything under the sun. Everyone sells the same and everyone charges differently. I buy some toothpaste from an old Indian woman who is sleeping at her stall. It was 2.50BS and I pay with a 10BS note. She has no money to provide change. She goes to her neighbors for help but, one by one, they either cannot or will not help her. She wanders the stores with my 10BS note plaintively begging in a singsong voice: “Change me… Change me…”

I purchase a pocket copy of the first Harry Potter book. It’s tiny and only costs a dollar. Bolivians cannot afford the original books so they photocopy them and, to save paper, make the print half the size. It’s really perfect to practice my Spanish. I learn Spanish like a baby: hearing words over and over and only later deciphering their meaning. Now with this book I can finally use the dictionary I’ve been travelling with.

If there’s one thing that La Paz seems to lack it is good, fresh food. In Lima I felt as if I couldn’t walk a block without someone trying to sell me delicious food. Bolivians are chubby but only because they deep fry everything. Even hot dogs are put to the fryer before they deign to step out onto their buns.

I shared a hostal room with a German named Martin. He was very congenial and, when I returned after uploading some pictures to the internet, I kept him up chatting for a few hours and then we went to sleep.

Until:

A loud banging at the door awoke me. There was also a sort of scuffling and scratching at the door. I did not know who it was but I remember calling “Hey! Martin!” in a sort of urgent whisper. He reacted, though not convincingly, by groaning. He was clearly awake but ignoring all that was to take place. The banging continued, now accompanied by sobbing: “Let me in. The door is locked…” At first I thought it was the man at the desk but as it dragged on and I began to really wake up I realized it was the man in the room’s third bed. He was completely, wretchedly drunk. He wailed and wailed. The door was not locked, he simply could not find it to push it open for, without a handle on the door, that was all it really needed. I went, timidly, to the door, opened it and slunk back to my bed. After taking a few minutes to realize that he had been saved from sleeping in the cold he stumbled into the room.

Once inside he began to fumble for the light switch. “Apaga la luz! Apaga la luz!” (“Turn off the lights!”) he mumbled. But of course the lights were already off, so he got no help from me or Martin, who was quiet as the dead. He said that for five minutes but I think it was a deception: he just wanted to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. And he wanted to do it loudly. I had a friend back home who, when melancholy was upon him, would get drunk and cry and moan and break things. This was freedom to him: a baby elephant tearing at small trees. I don’t believe I would have understood anything the man said regardless of language. He spoke like a mixture between a baby and some who had lost a close friend, in his case sobriety. He sounded like he might cry or might already be crying. After some success in removing his shoes, filling the room with their smell, he moved on to getting under the blankets. And then, after about 20 seconds of complete silence came his snoring. Loud, drunk snoring. The snoring was like a physical thing. It filled the air with it’s scent, the stench of cheap vodka mixing with his shoes. I could not sleep and Martin tossed and turned a bit. I felt set upon by his snores. I felt as if they were coming out and attacking me, poking me, preventing sleep. I was forced to remind myself that this was irrational, that I could sleep through most any noise and, finally, I drifted off again.

I do not know if Martin did. In the morning Martin said: “That was really too much!” He felt as if the man had lacked respect and felt, through past experience, that had we told the man to shut up he would probably have wanted to fight us. I was immediately transported, again, to Tortilla Flats, the masterpiece work by Steinbeck. The man was Danny, fresh back from the war and trying to get into a fight.

In the book we love him…

Isla del Sol

Pretty much everyone on the bus to Copacabana was a tourist. I do not know why it was that way but I have learned that it is an indicator that there are cheaper ways to travel. A few minutes after the border a man dressed as a policeman came on the bus. He was selling tickets to enter the “sanctuary” of Copacabana. “Gringo tax…” moaned the passengers. The tax was 1 BS (about 12 cents) but the folks on the bus took it personally.

Copacabana is a cute colonial style little village with magnificent surroundings and is very popular with the tourists. As a result it has the seedy kind feel that results from overcompetition for a seasonal market. As the bus stopped it was mobbed by the usual hostel and restaurant tauts. to Isla del Sol, the reason I was there in the first place. Boats left all the time for the island from the main ports but I didn’t want the hassle of choosing from competing boats or being with other tourists. I was to hike to a small village (who’s name I forget) about 17km away from Copacabana and take a boat from there. It was closer to the island and presumably cheaper.

It was a beautiful day, as it always is around Lake Titicaca, shining and crisp. I collected my backpack and made a beeline out of the city thankful that I could easily carry all I had and didn’t have to check bags at a hostel. As I walked away from the touristy center of town the houses began to look run down, rural, and then finally like a small town slum. An old woman sat in the middle of the dirt road and cleaned fish, throwing the stomache parts into the street where ominous dark birds competed with pigs for the piles of garbage.

OMINOUS BIRDS

OMINOUS BIRDS

I walked for about half an hour before I was joined by an Indian woman going my same direction. I would ask her questions about the area and she would misunderstand. “Wow. All the houses are built the same way!” I would say. “No, we don’t have those here” she would say. Just another classic example of a helpful Aymara speaking local who didn’t understand my Spanish.

The walk was ended up being about three hours but the altitude and the sun made it more difficult than I expected. We took a shortcut along an old Inca trail, all uphill. We stopped and shared water. I was going to take a picture of the view and just seeing the camera made her cringe. Traditional Bolivians really don’t like the idea of photos.

TROUT FARMS

TROUT FARMS

She was a trooper, carrying the ubiquitous bag that seems to be the only way of transporting anything. She probably made this walk every day. She looked like she was 50 but it was really impossible to tell. Peruvians and Bolivians either look under 15 or over 30, the age of youth disappears under large clothes, hard work and the unrelenting sun and wind. She could have been 30 for all I know.

HELPFUL AYMARA WOMAN

HELPFUL AYMARA WOMAN

She eventually reached where she lived and I carried on, overtaken by an American in the last five minutes. We hired a boat and a small boy rowed us out to the island.

A BOY AND HIS BOAT

A BOY AND HIS BOAT

The next two days I relaxed on the Island eating trout and drinking Coca Cola. It was heaven, and a cheap heaven at that. I wish there were more to say about it but it was essentially relaxing and calm. The views were simply incredible.

I love having a great beer and a great view.

INCREDIBLE VIEW OF LAKE TITICACA (WITH BEER)

But soon it was time to move on and, planning my next moves, I took hitched a boat back to Copacabana with some Italian mountain climbers. One had a camera and took a photo of me.

DEEP IN THOUGHT

DEEP IN THOUGHT

Bolivia at last!

I woke up refreshed, after about 11 hours of sleep. It was wonderful and I was cured of Marcos’ Disease. But for some reason, as I woke up that morning, I began to have a funny feeling. Perhaps it was the price of the train, perhaps it was spending a month more than I’d planned in Peru, perhaps it was staying in mostly tourist spots: it could have been any number of things. But the feeling was that I needed to move and I needed to move quickly. I was like a horse, slapped on the rear by a tourist guide in a hurry. I moved, though I wasn’t sure why. I returned to Urubamba to say goodbye and to thank Yoyo but he wasn’t at home. I played for a bit on the internet, checked again. Still no Yoyo. I took a bus to Cusco.

The bus climbs the rolling hills. Was it that the hills were almost naturally terraced or were they all terraced by the ancient civilizations that had lived here so long before? Out the windows of the bus I could see people making mud bricks for their houses. Animals of all types: horses, dogs, cows, goats, burros, llamas. We would pass people carrying their children or possessions in blankets. They reminded me of African women, carrying possessions on their head: a completely different system but similar in its “one size fits all” application. The sky was cloudy with blue peaking through windows in the clouds. We finally reach the crest of the biggest hill and the road flattens. We can see the hills below us, houses dotted about, surrounded by their farmland. The grass is yellow and in the fields patches of red, almost purple, dirt is visible where the land has been plowed. The air is chilly, the horizon pink. Eucalyptus trees grow in small forests where the rocks have made way to let them. Llamas graze in yellow soccer field. As the light fades the city of Cusco spreads out below us, a seeming metropolis with it’s brown terracotta roofs. As we enter it becomes more and more city-like. Now some of the houses are painted, now all of them, phone lines appear, now signs on windows, stopsigns, sidewalks, traffic lights, apartment buildings, street vendors selling food: popcorn, Inca Cola.

We arrive and I need to get to the main bus terminal. “Taxi?” a man asks. I ask if I can walk there. “You need a taxi” the man says. In the car I ask how is his business. “Bad” he tells me. “The gas prices are going up.” “It would be good for the president’s campaign if the gas prices were lowered.” I said. “We do not have a president like in the USA.” He tells me.

He drops me off just outside the main terminal. It costs extra for a car to enter. I walk in and go to the first bus counter. I should mention that in Peru, and I suspect most countries, there is a lot of competition between bus companies. Most people don’t own cars and public transportation needs to be cheap, accessible, and generally reliable. Competition seems to do some of this and also explains why two monopolies, Greyhound and Amtrak, are the laughing stock of the USA. You go to each company’s office and ask prices and check out the buses. The first company charges 40 soles. The second one charges 70. I ask why they are so much and the young man tells me that his bus is direct. His is the only direct bus. Everyone else stops in Puno to change buses. “Excellent bus.” He says, “Lots of tourists! Only tourists!” I say I will go ask the other company how much time they take to get there, but money is money and 70 is too expensive. “No don’t go.” He begs me, hanging onto my sleeve. “They will LIE to you. They all lie! They will tell you they do not change buses, but they do! Everyone but us does!” I tell him to calm down and that I promise I’ll come back. He lets go of my shirt. I go to every other company that goes to Copacabana and they all charge the same: 40. Ask them if they change buses, they say all the buses get there at the same time, changing or not. The bus leaves at 10pm and the border only opens at 8am. They all go through together. I return and confront the expensive liar with this information. He senses something is wrong. “So all the buses are the same.” I say. “Ok. Ok. 45 sols” he offers. “But there’s no reason to pay more for the same service” I say. “Fine,” he tells me “40 sols. Which seat do you want?” “But you’re a liar.” I say. And then as if I hadn’t heard his generous offer the lady at the counter next to him tells me “No no! He said 40 sols!” They are still probably confused as to why I walked off…

I bought my ticket at the first counter I went to. I wanted to change about $5 to sols to spend on food en route. The lady where I bought my ticket offered to do it but gave me a terrible rate (2.5 instead of 3.2). I laughed. She tells me to wait and goes to ask her neighbor something. While she’s gone I hear the girls at the booth laugh as well. “What a terrible rate!” “It’s like robbery!” they say. The lady returns and I tell her the rate is better in the center. “That’s the center.” She tells me. “It costs money to get there.”

I leave the station and ask if the center is close enough to walk to. Many Peruvians don’t understand a word I say but it’s really not because my Spanish is bad. It’s because they only speak Quechua, no Spanish. The man I ask is one of these and he mumbles something about the center and taxis. A woman overhears and invites me to share a combi for about one sixth of the price of a taxi. I arrive at the center, change my money and play on the internet again, renaming my pictures on the website. It’s so strange to see them immediately. In the old days I would have to wait till I got back to see them. It was more of a surprise. I eat dinner and walk back to the station.

The bus arrives in Puno at 5:45am for our 2 hour layover before heading on to the border. The tourists here are different than I had encountered in Northern Peru. They are not off-the-beaten-track tourists but rather almost-off-the-beaten-track tourists. The difference is that actual backpackers tend to flock together while these tourists avoid each other, secretly hoping the others would go away so they could enjoy some authenticity. But those backpackers travelling for longer times (a year or more) tend to be a bit more standoffish, hardened and more realistic. But perhaps the dynamic in the Puno station was more of a difference between those travelling alone and those together. Those who are alone tend to seek out adventure and initiate relationships. To travel with others is to be conservative, having to take into account each new element added to the group. Often travelling in groups involves sharing each other’s company while the scenery changes.

We wait for the connecting bus. I have breakfast of fried eggs and coffee. My original ticket said Pony Express at 7am. It changes to Colectur at 8am. I begin reading my Lonely Planet on Bolivia and get excited.

The bus skirts the lake passing abandoned boats. In the fields they seem to have planted chewing gum wrappers and they have now bloomed into plastic bags of all colors of the rainbow, neatly separated in their white, blue, red, green, pink splendor. The sun shines brilliantly off the lake and the sheet metal roofs reflect the light like a thousand mirrors. Our bus is cosy, warm after the freezing night. Cows graze in the yellow scrub grass. We seem to be in the slowest bus and buses full of local Indians scream by us.

LAKE TITICACA: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

LAKE TITICACA: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

A huge yellow walled off area, probably a stadium of some kind, rises out of nowhere. There is nothing inside but some donkeys who seem to be grazing in the uneven dirt and plastic bags. Now there is a kind of village with stone walls of rock placed on each other to form a kind of hedge maze. They are delicately balanced as if they were made of one rock originally which somehow shattered but never realized it and a single push or strong wind would scatter the wall for good. Our bus picks up speed and the driver slams on the horn as we pass through an isolated roadside market, scattering people.

SHEEP GRAZE NEAR THE BOLIVIAN BORDER

SHEEP GRAZE NEAR THE BOLIVIAN BORDER

Everything along the lake is half finished, as if at some point everyone here just gets tired of his job and decides to stop and start another project. The dirt brick homes have no roofs, the fields are half tilled, the gates are either half built or half mended, it is hard to tell which. In the fields there is no organization to the houses, none that I can see. People seem to simply build and then grow crops around them. But some houses have no crops. And some crops have no houses. Soon it all dropped away as we rose above the shining blue lake and made for the Bolivian border.

Borders are those peculiar places that don’t quite make any sense. They are the spaces between the lines on the map. They make one realize that all of the rules we recognize and respect are simply conventions worked out between those in power with those out of power. It’s especially obvious when there are border conflicts. One day everyone respects the border: “But of course! These are Bolivians/Chileans/Palestinians over there. We are different from those guys and must respect the borders!” The next day, the border simply moves because of brute force. National identity is effectively determined by your ability to defend your borders.

We passed through with little ado. The most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever had. The official merely looked for an empty place, found one next to a USA one where it said “exits” and stamped away, little caring about the confusion it might cause for every other official stamping my passport.

I was in Bolivia.

The Great Aguas Callientes Ticket Scam

All I knew was that with every fiber of my being I wanted to get out of Aguas Callientes that night. Things were expensive enough that it was almost cost effective to take the $30+ tourist train. After being severely misdirected by locals who buy cheaper tickets on seperate trains, I found the office did I discover that Helmut at SAE was right: there were no train tickets to be had. I cursed her under my breath but there was nothing to be done.

Previously, as we were walking, Marco told me: “You talk a lot.” “Sorry.” I said. “No no.” He said, “You talk to lots of people, it’s good.” He was right in a way, not talking to people is dangerous. I travel by myself but I am never alone. When things go tough, the people around you can help you or hinder you, it’s almost always better that they’re your friends. The cheapo Americans might have been irritating but they pulled Marco and me onto the truck when everyone else (including the driver) hollered that there was no room. Later in Tupiza I hung out with a guy from the Check Republic. He said “hola” to absolutely everybody be they man, woman or animal. “Saying hello doesn’t cost you anything” he said, “and smiles are universal!”

I would have thought that making funny faces, like everyone does at babies, could be universal but it isn’t. The French are notoriously bad at languages, often knowing no more than French. To make up for this, François (one of the French tourists Marco and I hung out with at Machu Pichu) would make a lot of funny faces. This actually ended up disturbing Marco a lot: “Why does he do that!” He said, “Is he trying to insult me?” Clearly they don’t have the “let’s make a funny face when we’re uncomfortable” policy in Brazil. Good to remember.

As I was leaving the station I ran into these same French tourists (Emanuel, François, and Loire) that Marco and I had hung out with in Machu Pichu. Once again it had been helpful to talk to people. They had run into the same problem as I had, no ticket, but because they had been earlier they had been able to talk to someone. In 20 minutes they were going to meet with a woman who could get them tickets and they said Marco and I could try with them. I raced back to delirious Marco and tried to get my stuff packed up as quickly as possible. We barely made it, supersick Marco leading the rear, almost delirious he kept asking people where the train station was instead of following me. He would always receive the wrong information because we could not buy the tickets to the regular train, only the tourist train which was about 10 times more expensive.

We arrived at 3:20 to argue for tickets to the 3:30 train. After a lot of arguing and explaining, the guard finally let us through to join our French speaking friends. It didn’t matter because none of us caught it. We almost made the 4:20 train. Just as the train was about to leave the conductor asked us for money. As we hurredly got it out the conductor said “Oh well. Never mind. The train is going!” We all had a good laugh over this funny joke except Marcos who threw up into a bag of bananas near the train man’s shoes. Emanuel and I began making plans that if we didn’t catch this next one we would walk back all the way back to Santa Teresa. I was weakened but I was not staying in Aguas Callientes. Marcos… I did not know what would become of him. François began playing my flute and begging for money. “Propina… propina…” he would whine, imitating the singsong of Peruvian street orphans and their mothers. Times were desperate.

We made the train. Barely. And paid 104 sols (or three days traveling) for our 2.5 hour train ride. Outrageous. We had all wanted to go to Cusco but the train ended a stop early in Ollantaytambo. Emmanuel took the bus to Cusco and Marcos promptly staggered to the nearest hospidaje. An hospidaje is a cheap Peruvian hotel. I think Marcos went into a hospidaje. It might have been better if it were a hospital. Before he left I gave him my email and a bright orange Cipra pill. Cipras have been my psychological edge against desease. “If you don’t behave I’ll pull out the Cipra and then it’s toasties for disease!” I tell my body. I haven’t had to take a Cipra yet and I haven’t heard from Marcos.

It was only maybe a half hour to Urubamba but the sickness had been creeping up on me throughout the day and I decided to take dinner with François and Liore. I ordered Arroz a la Cubana which is rice with a fried banana and a fried egg on top. François also ordered us two beers. He haggled over the price of the beers for about 10 minutes. The whole restaurant watched. I wanted to crawl under the table but François relished practicing his few Spanish words: “No no. Señor. Nosotros pobres! Seis Soles!” We ended up paying the full price ($2.50) for our litre of beer each.

Peruvians like grease and this restaurant was no exception. I hadn’t especially wanted a beer at first but when the food arrived and I discovered that simply smelling the grease made me sick, the beer became an exciting alternative to eating. We clearly had too much beer though and François solved this problem by making a little contest out of finishing the beer. Half way through my second glass of beer I excused myself to throw up. I returned cured and, though I did not finish my Arroz a la Cubana, I went to sleep exhausted, mildly drunk and incredibly happy that I had been spared what we shall call “Marcos’ Desease”.

Machu Pichu-d

DAWN IN THE SACRED VALLEY

DAWN IN THE SACRED VALLEY

Marcos and I ran off to the place where we were presumably to have the best view: the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock, from which the classic Machu Pichu pictures are taken. We gazed down and the ruins stood there, majestic and grand. Awesome. Mist hung in the morning light, like a feint veil layed over the past.

We waited for the sunrise…

And waited…

And waited…

After awhile of not seeing the sun rise, hoping it would and realizing it wouldn’t, Marco’s hunger took control of him and we went to eat breakfast. Marco was so hungry he wanted to eat everything. The food was opened and and I followed suit.

A TERRIBLE TERRIBLE MISTAKE

A TERRIBLE TERRIBLE MISTAKE

We had not slept much and were not thinking clearly. Obviously sardines and yoghurt don’t mix under the best of circumstances. Obviously this is not a balanced breakfast. It was clear to a reasonable person what would shortly happen.

We were not reasonable people. I had about two good hours before we started feeling the effects of sardine poisoning. Marco had about 20 minutes.

I THINK I'M BEGINNING TO FEEL THE SARDINES

I THINK I’M BEGINNING TO FEEL THE SARDINES

We set about exploring the ruins again which, for me, included sitting, drawing and writing. I sat in the sun and was finally warm. The only problem was that every time I got comfortable the Machu Pichu police would whistle to get me to move, or at least sit up straight. You may sit in Machu Pichu but you may not lie down. I had had little sleep and was exhausted and I excused my lethergy with “overexposure”. But Marco was beginning to complain of nausea. He got worse and I began to feel sick as well. We were both too tired and sick to climb anywhere.

MARCO IS ILL

MARCO IS ILL

There are many places that make no sense without a guide. But Machu Pichu is, perhaps, the most amazing and least understood Inca site there is. Everyone has a theory and the truth isn’t really relevant. I mean you overhear guides saying, “Oh and this is where they conducted the circumcision rituals.” But these guides could never explain why it was they thought that. They probably just thought: small dark room: circumcision rituals. Anyways, I don’t even think the Incas practiced circumcision…

A GUIDE EXPLAINS HOW THE INCAS WOULD GO TO THE BATHROOM IN THE WOODS

A GUIDE EXPLAINS HOW THE INCAS WOULD GO TO THE BATHROOM IN THE WOODS

The place was magnificent. But it was hard for me to believe that we had simply stumbled into this place of wonder. It was too clean to be lived in, to well built to be untouched, too half built to be a real city. I felt as if someone had found a wrecked house and, instead of rebuilding it, had polished every broken place until it shone.

FANCY STONEWORK

FANCY STONEWORK

 

It was not Disneyland only because it was authentic. But, though all the original stones were there, it was 80% (I am making this figure up) reconstructed and “authenticity” becomes an issue.

I climbed about the ruins for a few hours, trying to make the most of being at a wonder of the world. But perhaps the most interesting thing I noticed about Machu Pichu was the bathroom grafitti, with which I became intimately aquainted.

PRO SHINING PATH PROPAGANDA

PRO SHINING PATH PROPAGANDA

The grafitti was old, from the 1980s, pristine and untouched. It called for socialist goverment by any means, declared the previous election, stated that Oscar Valencia [the leader of the Shining Path terrorist group] was a true hero. It made me wonder, why was this grafitti still here, in such a public place, after all these years?

We were sick. But not too sick to walk back to Aguas Callientes, a feat with which I will always be impressed with. Marco went back to our hostal to pick up the things we’d left there (and to use the toilet) and, in no ability to walk to Idro and then to Santa Teresa, I went to inquire about train tickets back to Cusco.

The First Tourist to Machu Pichu

Our main reason for waking up at 3:30 was, get this, we were scared of missing the sunrise. The sun was supposed to rise at 6am but we were also told that the gates only opened at 6am. A conundrum we did not ponder. So we silently awoke with our 3:30 alarm, took what we needed and set out. The moon was bright and we hardly needed Marco’s flashlight.

Just outside of Aguas Callientes there is a campground for $5 per tent. Just outside this campground, on the road, we saw the tent of the Americans. It was so predictably funny and absurd. It reminded me of how I travelled in Turkey when I was 20. Sustainable for a few weeks, harmful over a few months and a spiritual killer over a few years.

We continued on the path and encountered some Frenchmen who were adjusting their packs. They had got up extra early to be the first ones to Machu Pichu. “When we get there we will be heros.” Francois explained. Two of them (it turned out they were twins) had asthma and could not go fast. We soon passed them and continued up the stone Inca trail into the darkness.

We were overtaken by a local man, presumably the ticket seller. We had been going 45 minutes and asked him if we were about halfway. “Not yet!” he yelled behind him as he scampered up.

THE MACHU PICHU TRAIL LATER THAT DAY

THE MACHU PICHU TRAIL LATER THAT DAY

A half hour later met a Japanese couple who were resting by the road. There was a sort of formulaic conversation that took place anytime tourists met on this trail. First we would greet eachother in Spanish. Then where are you from? How many people did you pass? How many passed you? From this information, calculating in the speed of the people we had met, we could accurately estimate how many were at the top.

Having heard the terrible stories of $7 burgers and $3 cokes at the top, we were overloaded with food. Despite this we progressed fairly quickly, taking turns to carry our one backpack. We had a really funny trading etiquette. Trading was initiated by one of us asking to carry the pack. The other would immediately say, “Oh no. Just a little longer” and then after another minute or so they would say “Oh, that’s just about right” and hand off the pack to the other person. Actually if I remember it correctly it was Marco who always asked for the extra 2 minutes, I think I remember giving up the pack as soon as I was asked.

We made it to the top as about the 12th people up. Everyone had been concerned with being first up: the first tourist into Machu Pichu. They were kitted out in headlamps and hiking poles. Marcos and I had been only worried about the money for the bus and being able to see the sunrise. We were determined not to miss it.

As we sat about lazily for the next 45 minutes, I thought back over our decision to get up so early and also about my own decision not to bring a warm second layer. I was sitting at 3,000 meters in a T-shirt soaked in sweat. I was very cold. At about 5:50 a bus showed up and people started pouring off. A line quickly formed of those who had walked up to prevent anyone from taking their place.

DAYTIME ON THE TRAIL TO MACHU PICHU

DAYTIME ON THE TRAIL TO MACHU PICHU

A LINE QUICKLY FORMED

They should not have worried because the bus people formed a second line to the right. I asked what it was for. A lady told me it was for people who had prebought tickets. Prebought tickets!!!! No one who had walked had prebought tickets. the whole idea smacked of cheating! A few minutes later the people who ran the show opened the booth and the hordes of people from the bus poured in ahead of those who’d walked. The first tourist into Machu Pichu was not some trekker with a headlamp but a pushy middle-aged lady with a ticket.

Marcos and I bought our tickets and hurried through the gates, eager to find the best spot for watching the sunrise.

The Road to Machu P: Aguas Callientes

We were hungry and all the restaurants on the way were too expensive, run by lunatics, or had no food. But we were more tired than hungry and made a solemn pact not to sit down for food before we had booked a room.

Finding a room in Aguas Callientes was an exhausting endeavor. Firstly, the town is on a hill. You start at the bottom near the highest priced establishments and slowly work your way up to the more moderately priced ones. Marcos and I began miscommunicating as a night with little or no sleep will cause. “Should we go that way or that way?” “Which way or which way?” Eventually we settled on a moderately priced place where we could share a room.

We ditched our packs and began the search for a reasonably priced restaurant and came up golden with the cheapest place in town, serving a menu of soup and fried trout with rice and fries.

Now it was just a matter of finding information about how to get to Machu Pichu. The consensus was that we could either take a bus:$12 roundtrip. Everything to do with Machu Pichu is in dollars. Or we could walk uphill for 1-2 hours, “depending on how you walk”. We went to a local market and bought supplies: sardines, lime, bread, yogurt, and water.

We spent the rest of the evening browsing for artesenias in the giant tourist market. A journal style book caught my eye. Unfortunately, like so many beautiful tourist items, the cover was marred by a garish CUSCO: CITY OF THE INCAS, embossed on the beautiful leather cover. I asked the lady how much it was. “45 sols! It is leather. Maybe 40 for you but that is all I can offer.” I told her the book was nice but I wasn’t really interested. She began to open the book and show the quality. But as she turned it over we simultaniously noticed the yellow price tag for 35 sols. She quickly masked her surpise (and, possibly, embarrassment) and said “It’s expensive because of the leather. But for you, 35 sols!”

We returned to the hostal and packed our bags for the next morning, resolved to get an early night and an early start. I set the alarm for 3:30 and fell asleep, exhausted, pen in hand.

The Road to Machu P: Santa Teresa

I awoke to a knock as promised and stumbled out to the combi in the cold. A crowd was already gathered and the Americans, who had set up there tent next to it, began to stir. The combi was crowded. I had thought I had seen full combis before but I think we set a good record with 22 people into the minivan. I was impressed. We probably could have fit more but the three Americans monopolized the back seat which was actually meant for four people. Space was cramped and everyone carried their luggage, no matter how much, on their laps.

HOW TO GET THERE

HOW TO GET THERE

The road to Santa Teresa was to be about 2 hours. On the way people got on and off. At one point the minibus waited by the side of a cliff for a few minutes, the driver muttering under his breath “he’ll come… he’ll come.” Then up the side of the near vertical cliff appeared a man with a flashlight, he’d climbed the whole way from his house below. He was soaked in sweat and couldn’t speak for several minutes.

I began talking to a Brazillian tourist, Marcos. Neither of us spoke Spanish all that well but it was our common language. He really spoke Portuguese and faked his way through. He had heard about the route from an English traveller. It was at this point I realized that my information was by far the most accurate of the group. This route was not in guidebooks and the only way to know it was through word of mouth. Word of mouth had been working though. I was told that the year before there were about 2 tourists a day, this year there were about 20 per day. It was like watching a town in the path of a flood. I wonder if they knew what they were in for once they made it into the Lonely Planet.

 

SANTA TERESA: A TOWN ON THE VERGE OF DISCOVERY

SANTA TERESA: A TOWN ON THE VERGE OF DISCOVERY

The locals got dropped off where they needed to be while the tourists got escorted to a breakfast place. And had fried egg sandwiches and coffee. Then we hulked down to the local thermal baths.

Peruvian thermal baths are usually built up a little bit and cost a nominal fee to enter. I had heard these were free and expected a river with some hot water bubbling into it. The pools for these thermal baths had been under construction for some time and were the nicest I’ve ever seen. They were beautiful, made of slated stone, the water filling and draining at the same rate to maintain the level. Around the area construction workers hewed and hauled rock for the pools, presumably hurrying to finish them in time for the town’s entry into the Lonely Planet.

THE AMERICANS

THE AMERICANS

I whipped out my swimming trunks and took the plunge. The water was tepid but perfect for the day and I soaked for almost an hour while the others dangled their feet. On the way back Marcos complained that his foot was hurting him. He told me he had hurt it while running to catch a boat on the floating islands in Lake Titicaca. They are covered in terraces and he had fallen over one, spraining his foot. He and I lagged behind the Americans and I espoused the high altitude breathing I had learned from my painter friend in Maray.

MARCOS TAKES A PICTURE

MARCOS TAKES A PICTURE

We returned to Santa Teresa and bought juice and snacks to prepare us for the road ahead. We left the Americans and set out on our way to the tourist town of Aguas Callientes.

OLD WOMEN CARRYING TOURISTS' LUGGAGE

OLD WOMEN CARRYING TOURISTS’ LUGGAGE

We began our path down to the river, which we would have to cross. On the way we encountered two old women each carrying four heavy backpacks. They lurched and stumbled forward, clearly overweighted. “The weight, the weight! It is too much.” they cried. Marcos and I wanted to help but it was awkard, like helping the bellhop at a hotel. We each took a sleeping bag, allowing the women to use both hands on the heavy load, and carried them with our packs down to the “bridge”.

There was no place on the river to anchor a bridge so the locals built a kind of ripline with a bucket.

THINGS ARE PLACED INSIDE THE BUCKET

THINGS ARE PLACED INSIDE THE BUCKET

There was a bit of a line for the bridge and I got a chance to ask the old ladies about their work. Each tourist pays 10 sols ($3) for that service. Eight bags equals 80 sols per day. They each make 10 sols a day to carry the bags. This leaves 60 sols ($20) in profit for the tour guide or agency. An amazing business!

Soon it was our turn to cross the bridge and Marcos and I bundled in and crossed.

I love adventures that aren't very dangerous but seem so.

CROSSING THE BRIDGE

There were trucks we could wait for to catch a ride but we decided to walk along the road and hitch a ride on one when it came by. On the way we passed a graveyard all set with flowers. Interestingly one of the graves had been defaced with political propoganda.

GRAVEYARD WE PASSED

GRAVEYARD WE PASSED

We walked for about two hours until the truck came but it was full and the driver called that he would not stop for us. Up ahead there was a local Indian woman hailing the truck and I saw the driver slow to explain why he could not pick her up.

“Run!” I yelled. And Marcos and I sprinted to the truck and climbed on the back. The driver got out to tell us that we could not come on but we were already over the top and trying to find space. We immediately noticed the Americans. They had been further behind and had been picked up before us. They took our packs from us, pushed them further into the truck, and helped us aboard. The driver was right, there was simply no room. But room was found and Marcos and I perched on top of the backpacks the women had brought for the tourists.

THE BACK OF THE TRUCK WAS CROWDED

THE BACK OF THE TRUCK WAS CROWDED

We were dropped off at Idro, the power station behind Aguas Callientes, at about noon. This station was the final stop of the Cusco tourist train and one stop past Aguas Callientes. We were on the other side of Machu Pichu.

YOU CAN SEE MACHU PICHU FROM IDRO

YOU CAN SEE MACHU PICHU FROM IDRO

Now it was clear that there were about 15 or so tourists. Among them was a pack of 7 Israelis. They were sitting by the side of the road arguing with their guide. “You told us it was only one hour, it was two!” I asked them about the train. They told me that they were not interested in the train, they would walk to Aguas Callientes. I asked them how long it would take: “2 hours of walking, 3 hours in the train!” they laughed. Everyone I asked gave me a different answer on when the train was to come, everything from 1:30 to 4:00. Marcos and I decided not to worry about it and, after exchanging some Jewish jokes with the Israelis, we set off walking up the track. Marcos and I talked about US and Brazilian politics, the idea of united South America, music, and absolutely everything else. And, as we hiked among the breathtaking views, it inspired Marcos to sing: Big Rock Candy Mountain to which I responded with This Land Is Your Land.

"AS I WAS WALKING THAT RIBBON OF HIGHWAY..."

“AS I WAS WALKING THAT RIBBON OF HIGHWAY…”

On the way we would pass various houses, restaurants and forest restoration projects. People would appear at the door and invite us in or give us advise on the trail. We also passed a train called the Hiram Bingham train, named after the discoverer of Machu Pichu. The train from Cusco to Aguas Callientes and back is $75: expensive. The Hiram Bingham train costs $500. We asked and were told under no uncertain terms that we could not get a ride on this train.

THE HIRAM BINGHAM TRAIN (PROBABLY NOT WORTH IT)

THE HIRAM BINGHAM TRAIN
(PROBABLY NOT WORTH IT)

A half an hour later we were in Aguas Callientes.

The Road to Machu P: Santa Maria

I discussed the plans for getting to Machu Pichu with Yoyo and many of his SERVAS guests had gone this route. He was quite enthusiastic. The first stop on the route to Machu Pichu was Santa Maria. From there I would need to catch a connecting combi to Santa Teresa. Everyone I asked, meaning everyone at the bus stop told me there was a lot of transport between the two towns. The only person who disagreed was Yoyo. “Fine, take the early bus.” He chided, “You will either wait here or in the cold in Santa Maria. I was updated on the blog and had nothing else to do, and it was in keeping with my First Principles of Travelling: I took the early bus.

On long distance Peruvian buses you have assigned seating. I was assigned next to a young man about my age. He was wearing a very old sports jacket and smelled terrible. He said nothing to me the entire trip. The other passengers were in a hurry. Every time we stopped to drop someone off or pick someone up the bus would yell “vamos! vamos!” until the driver took off again. The trip was a journey into another world. Immediately we began to ascend. In the fading daylight I looked out over the yellow scrub, an ancient landscape. Two pigs chased eachother for what seemed like miles in a valley below the bus. As we ascended into and past the clouds the air becomes thin, dry, rarified and my nose began to feel funny. I thought of the term “nosebleed seats” and, probably due to the lack of oxygen, laughed quietly to myself. There are people who live in these clouds. They are completely bundled up. We pass a few men in a field; one is giving a soccerball a halfhearted kick.

Then came the dark and, for a few hours, nothing but me and my thoughts. And the smell of my companion. As we approached Santa Maria locals got on and off, using the bus to travel short distances, pueblo to pueblo. Indian families would pile on with their children, sit in the aisle, and pile off at some remote roadside location 20 minutes later. When we arrived in Santa Maria it was about 10pm and, Yoyo was right, there was no transport to Santa Teresa till 3am.

To my surprise, there were a few other tourists who also were following the same route. The ones who stood out most were 3 Americans who piled off the bus at the same time as I did. These Americans were of a certain breed of traveller. I have a certain aversion to travellers who “do” places rather than visit them. “Have you done Bolivia yet?” they would ask, as if Boliva was the villiage tramp, putting out for everyone. But unlike the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed trekkers, these Americans were of the “do-everything-as-cheap-as-possible-because-we-are-incredibly-poor” variety. I thought they might go for the $1.30 3 course meal or the $2 room (including shower and a 2:30am wakeup call). They couldn’t be bothered. They would sleep outside and eat their stale bread and cheese. It seems odd to me for a law school student or a phone company executive to pay $500 or more to travel to another country for three weeks only to live like a hobo. Admittedly, it’s fun to live like a hobo, but these people had brought $200 sleeping bags, $50 pants, $80 cook stoves to do it. They could have eaten out every day and not had to carry any of that stuff and still saved money. Having time to kill and no one to share a cup of tea with (the Americans went nuts: “30 cents for tea! It’s 15 cents everywhere else!”) I decided to wander the town.

The town was almost completely dark, the only place open being the ubiquitous internet cafe. There were a group of boys all huddled around a single screen playing the latest network game. They seemed surprised at my appearance but the boy in charge, if there was one, asked me if I wanted a machine. I asked how much and he told me it was about $1 an hour, three times the price of anywhere else. I asked him why it was different. Seeing as there was a Telefonica monopoly, they should charge everyone the same exhorbatant price. They told me that Telefonica did not serve this location. Instead, a satelite company did. Needless to say it was not Peruvian. They thought it was Arabic, or maybe Chilean. Peruvians really hate the Chileans.

I walked about the town for a bit more in the dark then returned to my hostal, read some of Inca Cola, and went to bed.

As I write this there is a young man next to me looking at pornography on the internet. There is a very beautiful girl on the other side of him and she keeps giving him mean looks that he does not notice.

A Day in Ruins

I woke up, stumbled out the door and into a breakfast place. I had wanted to take a shower but the water main only comes on three times a day for a few hours each time. There is a water shortage. After stuffing myself with eggs and coffee I hopped on the next combi for a town called Mara. Actually I just got dropped off at the junction where Yoyo had told me to negotiate for good prices. “Just act like you don’t want anything.” He advised, “Then other tourists will come and you can negotiate with them for cheaper prices.” I didn’t listen and allowed a self-serving taxi driver to talk me into getting a ride into town. “Lots of tourists go there to eat lunch!” he told me.

As soon as we arrived it became clear that he lied. The town had nothing besides an old woman selling vegetables that looked like they were from her childhood. Especially when he turned to me and said, “I will drive you where you want to go for [outrageous amount]. So I got out and was about to ask the town’s only policeman if many tourists stopped here. Before I could get the words out he said, “You want to walk to Maray? Just go that way, no more than an hour.” “But…” I said. “Oh, afterwards you want to go to the Salineras? Then you just walk back the way you came and it’s an additional hour extra.” I thanked this policeman, who was singlehandedly ruining his town’s taxi business, and walked off in the direction he had told me.

It’s funny that walking is so much more rewarding than just arriving somewhere in a car, as if you were magically placed somewhere you had no business of being. Also you get to meet people along the way. I began walking with a young boy who paints pictures of different sites and tries to sell them to tourists. He walked the road every day. The walk was difficult for me because of the altitude. He told me that the way to breath while walking in the mountains was to take a deep breath, hold it for 10 seconds, release, and take another breath. It isn’t something I could do anyways and I just panted my way up the hill. But I didn’t forget what he told me and later this technique helped me a lot climbing up to Machu Pichu as well as hiking around Lake Titicaca.

INCAN AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT OR UFO LANDING PAD?

INCAN AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT OR UFO LANDING PAD?

Maray is an old Incan agricultural experiment which involves terraces. The best I could understand it is that on different levels they would grow plants that came from different parts of their empire while making good use of the hilly landscape. The result is impressive to look at. So impressive, in fact, that Yoyo told me many new age tourists come there to pray and soak up the power of this farm, mistaking it for a site of some special religious significance. Almost all of this part of Peru is terraced and it was hard for me to tell what was so special about these terraces that loads of workers had “restored” them to their former grandeur.

I explored the ruins a little while and then sat with the same boy who accompanied me up the hill, drawing while he halfheartedly hawked his paintings. While the tourists did a circuit of the ruins, the tour drivers would come and talk to us about cars and look at the pictures. I got to talking to one driver about politics and Fujimori. I asked him why Peruvians would complain that all their politicians were thieves and then vote for a person who left his presidency (and the country) in disgrace because he stole millions of dollars from it. The driver countered, “Sure he was a thief but during his time the roads worked and he built things: now there is nothing! We want him back!” Later I learned from Yoyo that Fujimori legally could not be president because he was not a national, he had forged his citizenship papers. A reporter did an expose on this and was nearly killed as a result.

I negotiated with the pro-Fujimori driver for a ride to the Salineras, my next destination, for 10 sols. Once there he pleaded with me, “Please, 11 sols.” I do not know why I gave him the extra sol. On the one hand he needs it, but on the other, renegotiating the money is something that is demeaning to everyone involved. It’s also something that happens a lot in Peru, not so much because of Peruvians but because of the tourist culture it spawns. This had happened before but in Cusco it would happen constantly.

LOTS OF SALT

LOTS OF SALT

But it didn’t matter, I was at the the Salineras. I don’t quite know how it works but I assume a salty stream of water comes down the hillside. The Incas pulled out the old terrace idea but compartmentalized the terraces into pools. The water would flow from pool to pool as it made its way down the hill leaving their salty deposits behind. The result is the most amazing salt mines I will probably ever see. White sodium deposits covered the hillside like snow in the middle of summer. Harvesting the salt is very difficult work but completely natural and, presumably, sustainable.

TOURISTS WALK ON THE SALINERAS

TOURISTS WALK ON THE SALINERAS

That night all the internet in the town went out. Another example of the danger of monopolies. I later found out that the internet went out for Cusco as well and, for all I know, the whole of the country. No one knew what happened, when it would be fixed, or anything. There wasn’t really anyone to call to tell that there was a problem, they just waited for it to be better.

Fingers in the Pot: Bolivia

Outsiders taking an interest in Bolivia’s government? This looks like something the US should take notice of!

U.S. sees foreign hands behind Bolivian unrest

Rumsfeld, Paraguayan President Discuss Mutual Concerns

US warns of Bolivian interference

Rumsfeld, in Latin America, Voices Democracy Concerns

It must be hard to report this stuff with a straight face, considering that the US military operates in most of these countries. Of course, there’s the drug trade and the now ubiquitous excuse of international terrorism.

Urubamba Yoyo

The next morning came and I awoke and slunk out of the hostal at around 8am. The girls went to enjoy their breakfast and I had a lovely one in a hole in the wall on the street while waiting for the SAE to open. I call it the “Peruvian Breakfast”: a fried egg sandwhich, Nescafe, and juice. Then I hopped over the SAE office only to find out that they had neither internet nor coffee, which made me wonder what kind of a South American Explorer’s Club they were. I asked a woman, who I believe was named Helmut, about the route I planned to take to Machu Pichu.

Machu Pichu is only reached by the town, Aguas Callientes or by a 5 day hike along “The Inca Trail”. The Inca Trail costs about $200 to hike with a tour group, which is the only way you’re allowed to hike it. Because many tourists want to see Machu Pichu they limit the amount allowed in through the Inca Trail to 400 people per day. When I arrived in Lima in June the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu was booked up through September. 400 people per day, in itself, would be a large number of tourists for any other Peruvian tourist site. Most of the ones I had previously visited averaged about 3 or 4 a day. However most people do not visit Machu Pichu via the Inca Trail but rather take the infamous tourist train from Cusco to Aguas Callientes. There is one train a day and it costs $35 (or about 3 days of my budget) each way. This does not include the $20 entrance fee which brings it up to a healthy $90 total.

I had heard from a fellow SERVAS traveller in Trujillo that there was another way. First, I was to set out for Urubamba. From there I was to head by bus to a town named Santa Maria, from there to Santa Teresa. From there I could essentially walk to a power station one stop after Aguas Callientes and take the train into town for only $2.

Helmut was unimpressed: “You will spend many days doing this. First you must go to Quillabamba. That is 12 hours. Then you must go to Santa Maria, another 5 hours… Finally if you can do this then you will be in Aguas Callientes without a return train ticket and you could be stuck there.” The SAE is a club with information and librarians to guard the resources and prevent theft. I assume they’re also supposed to be encouraging and upbeat.

I’m not sure who was more unimpressed: her with my plan for getting to Machu Pichu or me with her for being the least explorative person I had met so far. She had the kind of aloofness one gets from dealing with a lot of stupid people. It was almost as if there was a desire to be stupid rather than have to explain a new route to 1,000 fresh of the boat tourists. She understood that what she said affected the itineraries of tourists and with this came a certain lack of humility and enthusiasm for the information being given. In Lima the SAE was more of a kind of cheerleading agency while in Cusco it was an overpriced library. Luckily, I was picked up by Cynthia and Maru. We decided to wander the immaculate streets and soak up some culture at the Pre-Colombian Art Museum.

The museum was nice. Really nice. It further reenforced my opinion that in it’s attempt to please the tourists, Cusco had become a small European replica, at least within the tourist zone. After the last few weeks it was strange to see so many white faces in one location.

THIS MUSEUM IS LIKE ANY OTHER IN THE WORLD AND UNLIKE ANY OTHER IN PERU

THIS MUSEUM IS LIKE ANY OTHER IN THE WORLD
AND UNLIKE ANY OTHER IN PERU

The museum was an attempt to bring “primitive” art out of the historical sector and into the artistic sector. The museum treated its pieces as having been created by anonymous masters of another time, which they were.

Hiding realism deliberately, the sculptor demonstrates a total understanding of sculptoric handling, for ruital and religious requirements. This small mass of great complexity and symbolism allows us to imagine the process of manufacture as well as the desire to shape beliefs and postulates of mythological order.

Hiding realism deliberately, the sculptor demonstrates a total understanding of sculptoric handling, for ruital and religious requirements. This small mass of great complexity and symbolism allows us to imagine the process of manufacture as well as the desire to shape beliefs and postulates of mythological order.

“Genius” was a word the museum like to throw about a lot, as was “perfect forms” and the ever recurring “primitive.”

But for me part of Cusco’s (and perhaps all tourist cities) charm lies in being able to find the local deals. And we were: after the museum we stuffed ourselves on a three course meal beginning in a tripe soup and ending in chicken in a kind of antipasta. Delicious! (and $1.50)

After lunch I was finally able to contact Yoyo and so I said goodbye to my Ecuadorian friends and walked over to the SAE office to pick up my bag and get some grudging directions to the bus stop.

Catching the bus went without a hitch and I brought my backpack on board with me. I shoved it under the seats where my feet would go. At one point an Indian lady got on and sat down next to me. My backpack blocked a little of her foot space and I offered to move it. I never should have because she immediately called the driver’s helper “Boy! This boy needs your help to move his backpack!” I felt embarrassed. I could easily move the pack if she would move her leg, which was on the pack. The helper looked confused. He did not know where to move it. It seemed fine where it was. “If it’s bothering you ma’am, perhaps you would like to sit in a different space.” “No.” She said, “I want to sit here. It’s my right!” She was a nutty one and now, because I had mentioned it, she was intent on having my backpack moved to somewhere else on the bus! It was only when I was sitting in a seat in the back of the bus with my bag and she had placed her own bag on my vacant seat that I realized her plan was to relocate me from the beginning. I had been completely outmanouvred in a classic game of Peruvian busmanship.

It was night as we descended into Urubamba and I could see a very large circle of fire burning on the hillside. I asked an Indian woman on the bus about it. She told me it was because of the university. They were celebrating after exams.

I called Yoyo on the phone. It costs the same to call his cellphone as it does to call the USA so he was in a hurry to talk. I told him I was at a gas station and he said he’d meet me and he hung up. I was surprised when he and a large shaggy dog walked up to me 3 minutes later but he told me: “There are only two gas stations in town! Anyways, I once asked a SERVAS guest to describe what she looked like and she told me that SERVAS people just know eachother! And she was right!”

We walked back to his house. He is an architect and is renting the house next to the one he is building. He owns two dogs and a parrot and is looking for another parrot to match the one he has. “Parrots are very particular.” He told me in English, “There are many different kinds of parrots and they different types don’t like eachother. Also with some parrots it is impossible to tell which sex they are without a DNA test. They can make love and be two females. They are physically identical!”

We talked for a little over some ham and cheese sandwiches with tea and he told me that the following day a good idea was to visit some nearby ruins called Maray and Salineras.

Off to Cusco

I returned to Lima for a few days which was relaxing as can be. I really needed it. It was the end of my first month abroad and time to take stock of all the whos, whats, whens, wheres, hows and whys. It was also time to steel myself for the next leg of the journey: Bolivia, Argentina, and Uruguay. I stayed with Tanalee at the SAE, which seems to be the only place in town that serves moderately good drip coffee. It was a healthy, lazy time spent almost entirely updating my blog and other dithering.

After a few days I left for Cusco, the tourist capital of South America. The journey was 24 hours by bus.

THE BUS RIDE IS TIRING

THE BUS RIDE IS TIRING

The bus first travelled straight south along the PanAmerican Highway along the coast. I had happily avoided this, the best road in Peru, for some time. But now I wanted to make good time and for speed and comfort the coast road was not to be beat.

WELCOME TO THE SOUTH COAST

WELCOME TO THE SOUTH COAST

The coast of Peru, from North to South, is essentially a desert. There is really nothing there except the shacks built by penniless folks with dreams of homeownership. The desert is free and anyone can build there if, for some reason, they would want to.

I DON'T THINK YOU HAVE TO PAY TO BUILD A HOUSE HERE

I DON’T THINK YOU HAVE TO PAY TO BUILD A HOUSE HERE

The only other buildings in the desert are chicken farms and there are a lot of them. These long tentlike buildings house thousands of chickens. They are in the middle of the desert and I have no idea how they get water.

ARR... CHICKENS BE LIVIN' HERE

ARR… CHICKENS BE LIVIN’ HERE

Soon after we hit Nazca we picked up white tourists and headed inland towards Cusco. My luck for interesting developments struck with a vengance when a rock slide covered our roadway and we were waylaid for several hours waiting for a small and hopelessly outmatched tractor to clear the rubble.

AND THESE ARE THE GOOD ROADS...

AND THESE ARE THE GOOD ROADS…

I befriended a couple of Ecuadorian girls and when we arrived in Cusco that afternoon I went with them to find a hostal. I tried to call my SERVAS contact, named Yoyo, in Urubamba but his phone was disabled. I called many times and only found out the next day that the problems were caused by Telefonica’s purchase of BellSouth: apparently all the phone lines and connections were screwed up. The Spanish company Telefonica has enjoyed a monopoly here for a long time. Apparently the secret to being a Peruvian president is privatizing and granting monopolies in exchange for large contributions to your bank account. This happens a lot. I heard a story where one Peruvian president granted exclusive international flight privileges to American Airlines in exchange for a personal helicoptor effectively closing the national airline.

CUSCO IS LIKE FLORENCE... SORT OF

CUSCO IS LIKE FLORENCE… SORT OF

Throughout the day I explored Cusco with the with Maru and Cynthia indespersed with unsuccessful calls to Yoyo. Of all the cities I know, Cusco reminds me most of Florence. Both cities are cheerfully aware that while their many great deeds and accomplishents are far in the past, they are quite proud of their past and don’t feel a need to make cultural waves anymore. Instead both cities are quite content to polish and reconstruct their rich history for the tourists. Many times a day there are processions and dances for tourists. Locals dressed in traditional clothes beg to have you take a picture with them for a small price and street vendors sell the same artesenias for the same prices. Cusco is definately more tourist savvy than the rest of the country. Here vendors skip the hard sell (“You buy useless product now stupid gringo!”) and go straight to the more effective soft sell (“gee your feet look tired. i bet these authentic inca sandals will be comfy!”) They also have a one-ticket-for-all-the-sites dealie. and the like…

THEY SURE LIKE THEIR CULTURE HERE

THEY SURE LIKE THEIR CULTURE HERE

One funny thing here is that the Cusceño flag is the rainbow. Like the gay flag. The Cusceño flag is far older than the gay movement but the gay flag is far more famous. This is funny for tourists and irritating to the traditional Cusceños. I have heard that they are thinking of changing their flag.

THE FLAG OF CUSCO

THE FLAG OF CUSCO

 

The day was hot and the night a little chilly, but nothing like what people had warned me about. Lima is by far the coldest city in Peru but Limeños will do anything to convince you that the rest of the country is like the North Pole.

TWO (CHILLY) ECUADORIAN GIRLS

TWO (CHILLY) ECUADORIAN GIRLS

Not having heard from my SERVAS host I went shared the room with Cynthia and Maru. We only had to pay 15 soles extra but I had to leave before 8am because the guy working the night desk wanted to do it under the table and pocket the money.

Huanuco

 

HUANUCO

HUANUCO

Huanuco is located in the stunning sierras and is poorest district of Peru and if that is any indication, and it probably shouldn’t be, the folks there are the friendliest I’ve met so far.

THE TEMPLE OF THE CROSSED HANDS

THE TEMPLE OF THE CROSSED HANDS

They had one fairly uninteresting tourist site, The Temple of the Crossed Hands, where I met some French tourists. We both told eachother that we were the first other tourists we had found in weeks. Most of the tourists I meet are French. Apparently there are different trails. The most famous to me is the Gringo Trail but I somehow can’t find it. I can only seem to find the French Trail and sometimes wander onto the British, Israeli, and South American Trails, the latter which is made up of, well, South Americans. I am startled at how few tourists there are in Northern Peru.

CLOTHES DRY IN THE HUANUCEÑO SUN

CLOTHES DRY IN THE HUANUCEÑO SUN

My second evening I sat down in a local bar,bought a large beer, and determined to finish my night alone and friendless in a foreign city. But the world saved me from myself, as it is apt to do these days. After no more than five minutes the neighboring table motioned for me to come over. They were a linguistics teacher and his son in law and they were drunk:

“Are you alone? How hard it is to be alone! How solitary! You must drink with us! We are from Huanuco. My parents were from Huanuco. Their parents were from Huanuco! We are Huanuceños and! And you are just a traveller. But we are friends now! Friends for life. Where are you from my little son? Oh, California? And my listtle son, you are far from home but you are not alone anymore, you are surrounded by friends! Why tomorrow you must lunch with us! We are having a lunch with the whole family! Yes! You understand me. You know how to swim? Good! For we shall go to a swimming pool too, my little son, my friend for life. How old are you? 25? That is the same as my son! Oh what a pity, I have not seen him for three months. He is in Lima to work. There is no work here in Huanuco. **slams fist on table** How Sad! How sad this country is! We are nothing! Our government, they take everything! How we do live!!!

And he was right: life is hard for Huanuceños. When I first arrived in Huanuco I noticed that all the police car windshields were covered in steel wire to protect it from stones and all the police wore a form of riot gear.

POLICE VEHICLE

POLICE VEHICLE

I asked a local kid why and he said it was because of protests. I asked why there were protests and he just looked at me and said: “Because of everything.” That was the most I could get out of him. The more I discuss politics here, the more I am reminded of my conversation on the boat about military governments.

Peruvians feel as if they are at a dead end. To give a sense of what kind of trouble they are in, they want their old President Fujimori back. He has a few obstacles in running for election as he fled back to his home country of Japan after stealing tens of millions of dollars near the end of his last term. Most of his cabinet is in prison. But still you see a large amount of “Fujimori in 2006” campaign signs up and their is a startling amount of popular support. Peruvians tell me that “In Fujimori’s time he built roads and he built colleges. The country worked!” I was also told other facts, that all the money he stole came from illegal narcotrafficking and not from the state funds at all. I pointed out that Peruvians always complain that they have poor candidates, that their governers are thieves and then they all rally round a known thief! But life is complicated here. Here the tracks of power run deep and those who have it are not likely to give it up anytime soon.

But if there’s anything these people know, it’s how to welcome guests. It seemed like every shop I entered the owners would offer me their home phone numbers in case I needed anything or ran into trouble. When it came time to leave I was scared to go into a bar because I didn’t feel like making new friends right before leaving and though I was hungry I felt bad about buying food because they would always serve me too much, even for 2 sols, they would give me a multicourse meal that I could never finish.

Such are the fears I wish to have.

Pucallpa to Huanuco: Pueblo Unido!

The bus trip from Pucallpa to Huanuco was, of course, eventful. All the overnight bus trips I take seem to leave at 9pm and take 8hrs. This puts me at some lame part of time at about 5am and to befuddled to be grouchy. So I generally hope for eventfulness on the journey so we can get delayed for an hour. I should but I do. I’m glad that I still enjoy the eventfulness of travel in Peru because it happens so frequently. The folks who gotta be at work at 5am (most of ’em) probably don’t appreciate it so much though.

The bus left on time but just as we left it began to rain. It rained for about 20 minutes. In the jungle it only rains for about 20 minutes but in quantity it’s worth about a year of Seattle rain. To cut a long story short we reached a muddy stretch of the road and there were about 30 trucks stopped in the mud all over the road. Here there is no policy of “hey it’s raining, let’s all wait till the mud is dry”, there’s the the “let’s dump some of the load we’re carrying on the road and then put our foot on the gas” policy. The result as that we ended up going on foot in the pitch black night from truck to truck, waking up the drivers and then arguing with them for about 15 minutes till they moved their truck 10 feet so the bus could get past.

THE BUS LIGHTS ILLUMINATE OUR VIGILANTE  ROADCLEARING MOB

THE BUS LIGHTS ILLUMINATE OUR VIGILANTE ROADCLEARING MOB

We couldn’t get too far ahead of our bus because it was dark and we were in the Jungle and, as one fellow passenger put it: there are 20 foot anacondas in the jungle. “Are you really worried about anacondas?” I asked this fellow, who lives in the area. “No,” he replied, “I’m going to stay here.” If the reader wishes to try his hand at this kind of puzzle, I suggest Rushhour, which happily avoids the six inches of mud, the mosquitos, and the “human element” which is a mob of 30 irritated passengers screaming obscenities at an equally irritated truck driver who wants to sleep rather than move his truck who inevitibly claimed that his truck was stuck in the mud and couldn’t move till morning. Sometimes the driver was right and his truck really WAS stuck and 30 irritated passengers would push a fully loaded truck the requisite distance for us to get by.

This also reminded me of a different ill fated bus ride from Chachapoyas to Tarapoto (5 hours: ha!). So on mountain roads buses careen around steep one lane mountain roads. As we climbed the hill an overly eager bus driver decided to remove our side mirror. I think he wanted more but we had a stingy bus driver. Needless to say buses around here don’t carry third party insurance. The police showed up in record time and quickly came up with the solution. The offending driver must pay out of pocket 50 soles (about $15) for the ruined headlight. “A slap on the wrist!!!” I thought. Not so: needless to say the driver lacked said money in a serious way and we waited for 2 hours while he somehow obtained it and we could move on.

On the plus side my journey from Pucallpa to Huanuco made me plenty of friends on the bus. On of the men was a travelling salesman. Here there’s a fiesta in every city every couple months and lots of people selling junk travel from town to town cashing in on the buying fever. He had enough money for one night in Huanuco and we split cab fare to the economic choice for hostals in town. It’s nice travelling with Peruvians, you don’t have to pay Gringo Tax.

Pucallpa and onward

We arrived in Pucallpa at 3am that night. Everyone stayed on board because Pucallpa is quite dangerous at night. The stories are that the taxi drivers take you off to some deserted place, kill you for a few dollars, and dump your body in the lake. Who knows if there is any truth to these stories but after the pirate incident I decided to head that same day for terra tranquila: Huanuco.

Pucallpa is a crossroads city, flourishing as the necessary junction from the river to several roads. Dirt roads. It is hot, humid and the dust from the dirt roads is intolerable. Every city in Lima has a plaza, some of which are nicer than others. But I think that only Pucallpa has an open urinal in theirs.

PUCALLPA IS DUSTY

PUCALLPA IS DUSTY

David, Lucy, Jarden and I all left the boat together in the morning and went exploring. Jarden is a Pucalpeño and knew the territory. The four of us visited the tourist strip: a mosquito ridden lake, quite beautiful but with litter and abandoned boats everywhere. It was much as one might imagine a tourist strip in the deep Louisiana bayou.

PUCALLPA IS FILLED WITH ABANDONED BOATS

PUCALLPA IS FILLED WITH ABANDONED BOATS

We then proceeded to the market where we ate watermelon.

JARDEN LIKES WATERMELON

JARDEN LIKES WATERMELON

Lucy Pucallpa, which is bad because she and Jarden are stuck there until they earn enough money for onward tickets to their next destination: Lima. Jarden’s brother owns a car in Lima and Jarden could rent it from him to use as a taxi. As I mentioned before, Jarden and Lucy intend to travel the country together, visiting family. Before they both had reasonable jobs that paid the rent and put food on the table. Lucy worked in a restaurant and Jarden was a mototaxi driver by trade. They each earned about 10 soles ($3.30) a day in income, which paid the rent but left no savings. It is hard to imagine that I used to earn in one day what one of them made in over two and a half months (of working every day, of course). It is hard to comprehend the fact, it is impossible for me to understand why. Here in Pucallpa their family didn’t approve of their unmarried status and they felt more comfortable sleeping outside than they did with Jarden’s relatives. They estimate that, working hard and sleeping outside, they could save the money they need (about $25) in about three weeks.

I gave them my sleeping bag and $1.50 (capable of buying a day’s worth of food) and I caught the evening bus to Huanuco.

LANCHA pt. 4: Pirates!

The next day passed quite as the others: sunny and lazy. But that evening there was quite a bit of a stir.

Most of the boat was watching Titanic. Meanwhile my game of Casino had turned into a conversation about Peru’s governmental problems, of which there are many. Like most other Latin American countries Peru has been plagued by thieving civil servants who view their primary task as looting the people. One of innumerable examples would be the 80km road that was built in the jungle connecting Iquitos to the neighboring town of Nauta. The road ended up taking 10 years and costing 48 million dollars. The reason was that over that period every regional president used the project as a kind of slush fund to line their own projects. Three separate regional governors did this until it was finally uncovered. There are many parties in Peru but only really a few serious ones, all of which are crooked. Peruvians are very frustrated.

I remember when I was teaching my room decided to have an “island theme.” I wanted to tie this into the whole idea of tying the island into different subjects. If we were really on an island we could study geography, history, and government. I was most excited about government. My plan: the initial idea was to give the kids an imaginary island and they could draw a map of the island, write up their own laws, etc. It turned out that this was a little openended for most of them so I decided to give them a preexisting island. For some reason I chose Haiti and, as the projects came in it became clearer and clearer that Haiti was in serious trouble. I would ask my students: “Ok. You’re the president. Now what’s the best way to solve this country’s problems.” We would talk for hours but I never found a student with a solution other than revolution. So we had a revolution: for art students would design the new flag, new rules, new everything. The project continued for a month before it ran its course and we moved on. Two months later the actual Republic of Haiti decided to follow our lead and had a revolution.

The point of the Haiti story is that, looking at a country’s options actually isn’t something only specialists understand and it’s becoming more and clear to me that Peruvians seem to feel that they are out of options. They are not big fans of democracy because over and over they elect people who steal from them and, sometimes, kill them. Something that has been coming up more and more in these conversations is turning to a military government.

I was raised anti-military and I have always believed that military governments are the kinds of things that begin with elite commandos raiding congress in the dead of night. But it seems that no government rules without popular support of one kind or another and there is currently a lot of support for the armed forces.

I asked my friends why the military government would be better than now. “The military provides more order. Our country needs more order,” they said. “But the problem isn’t that there is no order in the streets, the problem is that the government takes all the money. Do you think the military will steal less?” I replied. “There is more order with the military. The government too. There is just more order in general.”

I was unconvinced but at that moment there started to be a bit of a hullabaloo. People ran around the room and looked out the windows yelling “Saltaro! Saltaro!” meaning “Jumper! Jumper!” Since I got onboard I had been scared about the idea of falling out of the boat. The night before I had seen a large snake’s head moving about around the boat while we were stopped. The room became electric and people started becoming more and more agitated, running in circles and looking for something to do. But then people began to run away from the windows, quickly shutting them and then moving away. Some people began to hide under tables. Then a few shots rang out. “Oh!” I thought. “They meant ‘assaulto’!” I was in no position to understand exactly what was happening but had the overwhelming feeling that I would like to hide under the table with the others. Under the tables were a lot of crying children and I heroically gave my polar fleece to a 12 year old girl to put over her head. At least it felt heroic at the time. The atmosphere was very tense but after two minutes everyone came out and it was somehow all over. As we sped away into the night, leaving the attackers to gnaw at their bones, all anyone could talk about was the assault.

I heard stories from everyone about what had happened and every story was different. Jarden told me that the attackers were terrorists and that there was a terrorist village downstream and we had turned around and were returning to Iquitos. Others told me that they were just ordinary robbers, only after the money in the boat’s lockbox but we had outrun them. Gemma told me that this happens frequently and that they steal from all the passengers and frequently rape women. But the only story I believe is the one that I heard while standing while talking to a fellow boat passanger who was also on my bus from Pucallpa to Huanuco. Apparently there were no robbers at all. There had been a robbery four days earlier and, in the dark, a small boat didn’t respond to the captain’s hail. Our jumpy captain had started yelling that there was an assault underway, fired some shots in the air and hit the gas.

LANCHA pt. 3: filling up

On the third day the ship was entirely in a routine. I awoke late for breakfast (café con leche) but so did everyone else – apparently if we are to be served the same every day then we are not as excited to rush. I noticed pretty early on that I’d been mistaken in my assumption that because of my precautions against mosquito bites had worked for the past few days, I no longer needed to take them. I woke up to find a healthy 20 bites about my feet and legs. I had been so confidant in my shorts for protection but their weaknesses became immediately clear to me. The bites itched like hell for the next 3 or 4 days. Mosquitoes here don’t play around: the bites are about 3 times larger and a sight more itchy than those of their American cousins. The mosquitoes were also more devious and I had numerous bites on the soles of my feet. For the next few days it was terrible to walk in sandals and shoes burned like fire.

I spent little time in my pueblito instead in the restless spirit of my trip I decide to play the social butterfly flitting from floor to floor. The time passed lazily as whiled away the hours playing cards, drawing the scenery, taking photos as we stopped to load and unload cargo. People would get on and off the boat but more would get on than off and soon the boat began to become crowded. By the evening meal the landscape of the second floor had completely changed and our small backwater pueblito had become a bustling city complete with a bustling nightlife, food vendors and possibly a criminal underworld. It was so crowded that people would board the boat with hammocks and have no place for them. This is astonishing for anyone who has traveled in a boat where everyone slept in hammocks because, alternating high and low, you can fit more people into a small space in hammocks than any other method of bedding. That night people slept in the doorways and with the animals on the prow of the boat. Upstairs Gemma faced a problem because a two very large women had moved in so close to her that they simply could not both be in their hammocks at the same time. Every time Gemma sat down in her hammock the woman would cry out in pain but greeted any attempt at talking it out with cold, grim stonewalling. She knew she was in the wrong but she simply was not going to sleep out in the cold.

Our pueblito’s new immigrants posed another problem as well: with all this movement our baggage was no longer secure and constant guard was placed on our bags. But late that night while the pueblito circled wagons I donned my long pants and other mosquito protection and headed out to the explore Cantamana, a passing town, with some friends (Pedro, Gemma and Patty) from the boat. They were excited because the town had a telephone and they could call their families.

That night I stayed up looking at the stars a bit longer. Then went back to my pueblito and passed out.

LANCHA pt. 2: Fiesta on the 4th floor

I woke up much more rested. Breakfast was cafe con leche whcih is served in a bowl and has little to do with coffee or milk, looks like Amazonian river water and tastes like a Frapuccino fell in a vat of boiling water. The object of the game is to dunk your ration of 3 stale pieces of bread in the brown broth and soak up what nutrients you can. While to the reader at thome this may sound scant but I assure you that to us it it was like angel food cake with fresh strawberries and we finished our last drops with gusto. Well, I didn’t exactly finish but, as was to become the custom with all meals aboard ship, I would offer my food to Jarden who, at first with reluctance and then with increasing eagerness, accepted my gifts. Filled with bread, warm water and an eagerness to stretch my legs I decided to set off to see the other floors.

The boat begins in the hold, which is reached by a very large dumbwaiter attached to a winch and contains a lot of exotic cargo.
The first floor of the boat is also reserved for cargo and extends into the prow, where the larger cargo is stored: everything from contstruction equipment and boats to farm animals and large bags of dried fish. Boats and airplanes are the only way to transport anything to roadless Iquitos and for bigger ticket items the only real Previeweconomic way is boat.

THE PROW OF THE BOAT ON THE FIRST DAY

THE PROW OF THE BOAT ON THE FIRST DAY

THE PROW OF THE BOAT FILLS UP AS WE GO

THE PROW OF THE BOAT FILLS UP AS WE GO

As we go down the river we stop by tiny pueblitos and upload their cargo of bananas, fish, rice and other jungle produce and offload our travelling vendors who stay the night to sell their wares and then catch the next boat one stop to the pueblito downstream. We also take on people and as the voyage progresses hammock space becomes more and more dear.

SMALL COMMUNITY GATHERS TO GREET OUR BOAT

SMALL COMMUNITY GATHERS TO GREET OUR BOAT

THEN THEY CARRY STUFF ON

THEN THEY CARRY STUFF ON

The second floor of the boat is where I live and sleep. It is the biggest, the most crowded and it contains the kitchen. Every time the cook banged his spoon against the cooking pot everyone ran to get food. At first this wasn’t important as everyone got the same but, as the final days of the voyage approached and the kitchen began to run out of food, not everyone on the crowded ship got to eat.

The second floor also housed the majority of toilet/showers. The shower was directly over the toilet so, in theory you could wash yourself as you went about your business but I never tried this luxury. At first they were clean and self cleaning but later the drains become clogged and water and human waste piled up leading to an unpleasant for the unwary late night visitor.

The third floor was somewhat the executive level. While anyone could sleep here, there is less space and only two bathrooms which keeps the population lower. It also has a better stocked kioske which serves beer at the outragous amount: $1 per can. On Amtrak they charge $4.50 for a beer but here on land you can buy a delicious steak with all the trimmings and a drink for $1.50.

Aboard the Don Segundo it was virtually impossible to be without companionship and I needed only wander a few steps before finding new friends. Or rather they find me: everyone wants to talk to the gringo. I took a few pictures of children eating things off the ground the next thing I knew I had been invited to the 4th floor for a drink. Not wanting to arrive empty handed I went downstairs to get my supply of canchita, a treat for anyone who enjoys the the toasted but unpopped kernals of corn usually left at the bottom of the bag. Usually served on top of ceviche it is a tasty treat in its own right and on board the Don Segundo, best kept under lock and key. I kept it in a black plastic bag similar to my toiletry bag and every time I would go to get my soap Jarden would ask: “Canchita?” I had hidden some canchita in a blue bag and, suspicions unaroused, I ran back up to join the party.

The party was a real party complete with an MP3 cd player busting out the top 150 cumbya music hits which might as well be the top 5 because they all sound the same to me. After the cramped conditions below I was entirely unprepared for the sight. An MP3 player pumped out the Peruvian Top 150, which might as well have been the top 5 because they all sound the same to me. Young men and women danced, joked and drank beers in the sun.

YOUNG PERUVIANS READY TO PARTY

YOUNG PERUVIANS READY TO PARTY

I had imagined a 5 day Amazonian boat ride as a rather grim endeavor best remembered as a tough experience overcome with your fellow travellers. This might be true on the lower levels where people complained of the bread prices: “30 cents for five loaves? Outrageous! It’s half that at home! I would rather go hungry!” These high rolling 20 somethings had strewn the roof level with their empty, and expensive, beer cans. The only other inhabitants of the roof level seemed to be small children who took glee in throwing the cans off the side into the river.

Peruvians love to litter and, though I don’t pretend to involve myself with noble task of changing their culture, every time I see it I am filled with the burning desire to say “You know, one day you or your children are going to have to go down to that river and fish that bottle back out just to put it in a garbage can. It’d really be easier for everyone if you just put it there now.”

I FINALLY LEARN THE DANCE CUMBYA

I FINALLY LEARN THE DANCE CUMBYA

The day was idyllic and we danced the hours away.

LANCHA pt.1: Aboard the Don Segundo

This is a long post and I suggest the reader find a nice cup of Tension Tamer tea, a quiet place, and only then venture on the voyage found in the following pages. You have been forwarned. Avast!

Florence and I went to the market this morning and bought the necessary items for our respective journeys. His is the logical next step from Iquitos, the gateway to Brazil: a three day journey to the border town of Tabatinga. I, on the other hand, was doubling back on my route back south to Cusco and then on to Bolivia. We bought hammocks and ties, plastic bowls, utensils, flashlight. And water.

We are, of course, to be on a river which has plent of water. But as the ship also has bathrooms and the products of those bathrooms get dumped in the river, I concluded that I would need five days of water. I decided on 10 liters, fhat our 2.5 liter bottles.

Florence and I got a mototaxi to the docks where we had inquired earlier. Almost there it appeared as if there were a group of protesters spilling into the roadway. As we neared they began screaming at us “Pucallpa! Pucallpa!” and I began to realize that they were boat tauts, no more and no less than the the guy on the Lima buses who screams the route to, somehow, drum up business from people who thought they wanted to walk. I asked the driver and he said that there were two boats leaving tonight for Pucallpa but the food was better on the one we’d just seen because it was cooked by women. He also told me it was cheaper. Both facts turned out to be blatant lies intended to get more fare from us for my return journey back to the first dock.

We dropped Florence off and he and I bid eachother a fond “adieu” and I returned to the other dock. The taxi driver charged an additional price for our short return journey (3.5 soles) but had to wait while I got change by buying my ticket. The ticket cost about $22 for 5 days, including food. Unfortunately my change was returned to me as two 5 sole coins, which meant I had to rely on the driver to give me more change. He promptly decided that his time waiting for his increased fare was worth more than he’d thought and changed his price to 4 soles. I glared at him until he gave me another 20 centavos in change and then ran for the door.

It’s ironic that I should care about so little money but somehow it comes down to “principle”, had he quoted 5 soles in the beginning and stuck to it that would have been fine but the idea of changing prices because I am a gringo is upsetting to me and puts me in the position of haggling over 50 cents every time I buy something.

I BOARD THE GOOD SHIP DON SEGUNDO

I BOARD THE GOOD SHIP DON SEGUNDO

After my friend, the mototaxi driver escaped with an extra 15 cents, I wondered bewhildered up the flight of stairs leading to the second and middle floor of the boat, wondering if I ought to set up my hammock now or later. I finished clunking up the stairs with my 4 bottles of water I was greeted by a humming beehive of activity.

There were hammocks everywhere, old men, women, babies, kids, people of every shape and size imaginable. Among these hammocks kids flitted about selling products ñole bowls, soap, water, soft drinks, and home cooked meals for unprepared travellers while families hauled their worldy possessions about the large cabin. The occupancy of the boat said 250 but with the “bring your own hammock” policy I was sure no one was counting. In my bewhilderment I heeded the advice of everyone I had spoken to which was “pretty much every place on the boat is the same”, which turns out to be a complete lie, and I chose a place directly above the furnace and next to the kitchen, bar, and the only garbage I saw on the ship. The garbage can turned out to be the cleanest place on the ship as no one uses garbage cans in Peru. For our nonrecyclable items there is the river or, better, the floor of the cabin. The smell of raw, market-bought chicken pervaded the air, as did the five songs that get repeated over and over at every discotech. Luckily on board the Don Segundo the CDs were so scratched that you only had to listen to half the song.

At first I was worried this might not be enough but once on the boat I was happy I did not spring for the 6 bottle pack as the eager young water salesman suggested because just as I was beginning to realize that I was losing about one liter of water every hour from sweating in the 90 degree humidity I opened my first water bottle and heard the familiar “hhssssss” of sparkling mineral water, which is packaged exactly like still water, or as they like to call it “water without gas”. It is as if on the third day God Almighty first seperated land from the gaseous water and only later seperated regular carbonated water from it’s redheaded stepchild “gas-less water”.

I turns out gaseous or no, almost no one else brought water. To this day I do not know how Peruvians drink it, probably in the privacy of their own homes. In public they stick to juice, soft drinks and beer. If they do drink water then it’s the cursed carbonated water. I hoped to find some poor Peruvian who had, by some mistake, bought still water so that I could trade them, perhaps at a profit.

It only took me a couple of hours to realize the error of my ways and, though I hated to appear as if I were leaving my neighborhood with delusions of upward mobility, I bid a silent goodbye to my neighbors and slunk off to the front of the boat and crept into small space between two hammocks far from the noise and heat of the engine, which rocked the whole boat.

JARDEN AND LUCY PLAY CARDS

JARDEN AND LUCY PLAY CARDS

I then had an hour or so of reading my book before the typical getting to know you chit chat started up. On my right side was David, studying to take the university entrance exam in a private school and on my left was Jarden and Lucy, two penniless lovers who dreamed of travel but had no money. They go from city to city, visiting family and trying to save for the next onward ticket.

DAVID STUDIES

DAVID STUDIES

As I set up my hammock I noticed a girl of 20 or so years more tickled than most at the new addition to the neighborhood. Every move I made, tying my knots which made me nervous and I ended up tying them loosely. As we drifted off to sleep I notieced that this girl had no hammock and my neighbors told me semi-jokingly that she wanted to sleep with me. I glanced over in disconfirm this rumor only to find an unequivicable statement of affirmation on the girl’s face.

After talking for some time we slept as we could and woke up with the sun, around 6am. There was various movement as people went about their morning ablutions and then all of a sudden a man started banging loudly on a pot and within seconds the air become electric: we rushed with our tupperware towards the kitchen. Breakfast turned out to be Quaker (pronounced QUAH-KERR) which is Quaker Oats, very thin with condensed milk and water. Very sweet, and with some stale bread: delicious.

After breakfast we became more jovial. I offered my cards up and they became popular immediately. We played on teams and my team lost famously until I figured out that folks on the boat actually knew American style Casino and that I knew the strategy.

Far from the lonesome voyage down the solitary undergrowth, somtimes pushing fallen trees aside while dodging anacondas and unfriendly indians with blowdarts. Instead I’m playing games called “punch” and “dirty ass” with new friends while drinking Bimbo Break Lemon Lime Soda.

After this I passed the time writing, reading, and talking. I tried to read my Lonely Planet but it is like reading a phone directory for Disneyland so mostly I spent my time talking. Everyone likes to talk to the foreigner and everyone knows someone in the United States. Who knows if they actually do but they sure like to talk about it. They like to hear about my journey and differences in culture.

Also I have become more culturally prepared for the food sharing. I am careful not to offer things I want to keep for once something has entered into the community it belongs to community and is there to come and go as the members of the community wish. For instance, I offered my sleeping bag to one girl the other night and the next night she offered it to my neighbors, Jarden and Lucy. Also with precious soda: once one other person takes a sip of it it might pass the lips of the other 248 passengers before it returns to the original owner. But still, it’s worth it. Despite the fact that I am now the one buying drinks for everyone, I am pleased. At least people seem to have their own stories, own agendas, and not looking to get drinks from the rich gringo tourist.

I am the only gringo on the boat for five days and no one speaks a lick of English except for the occasional “Thankyou noproblem” which is followed by giggling at the use of a different language.

The days aboard the boat are divided up by meals. Lunch was typically rice, noodles, a very small piece of chicken (like a beak or a leg), and a dozen beans. Dinner was even better: chicken soup, minus the chicken. They do not serve drinks and, water being expensive ($1 a liter) no one really brought any. With good cause I began to see the writing on the wall: on day three the drink line was going to form around me and I remembered the best training manual I could have ever read: Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck.

There are people who are happy that everyone shares for they have nothing. What a windfall to this culture I must be and while there is something to be said for the respect of private property, there is also something uncomfortable about having more and not sharing, asking those with less to sit and watch you enjoy your happy life. There’s something anti-community in, though at the same time I think respect of one’s “betters” and their wealth seems to be a cornerstone of society. Still, it’s interesting and refreshing having to rethink my bounderies, learning to keep that which is Ceaser’s unto Caeser and also asking myself who really needs these things more: me or the others around me. All private property is theft from the community and it is ironic that we feel this idea of loss most when our own private property leaves us and is distributed among the community, among those who want or need it more.

By lunchtime my enamorada had invited me to hear her sing at church and gazed at me with a look that could only mean she had the names of our first five children already worked out and that I would have to hurry if I wanted some say in the names of the second half of our family.

By now we had settled into a comfortable routine of playing cards and talking, broken every so often by Jarden turning up with new alcoholic drinks he had liberated from another “neighborhood”.

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS

One of them, translated to “7 deadly sins” – essentially an alcoholic aphrodesiac that is “guaranteed to give you an erection” could well be the official drink of the jungle. All alcoholic drinks in the jungle seem to be aphrodesiacs. They are sold in the market, not the stores and all have names like “Breaking the Panties” or “Losing the Virginity” or something like that. They are all made from trees and are homebrews marred by no brand names. They are sold in markets by old women who probably ought to know better.

THESE LADIES SHOULD (AND PROBABLY DO) KNOW BETTER

THESE LADIES SHOULD (AND PROBABLY DO) KNOW BETTER

I now learn my Spanish in themes of conversation, much like the chapters in a Spanish textbook. I traded card games until late into the night with two twenty year old “boys” who ran their own business selling clothes. They explained words like “profit”, “investment”, and “factory mistake”. They would travel from Lima to Iquitos and back, selling their clothing to very small villages at a 150% profit. But even this outrageous markup, they explained, was the market price as the cost of travel to these villages is prohibitive. Many times they would only break even. But, if the reader chooses to browse the photo section of the blog, he will find that on this boat ride the rural villagers living in towns accessable only by boat wore new clothing only a few months behind that of Lima. I was very impressed by these boys and they were so impressed by my impression that one of them gave me a clipon reggae earring that he claimed to have made by hand.

Tired and interested in how it felt to sleep in a hammock I decided to retire. After one failed attempt which left me sitting on the floor I successfully entered the thing, pulled up my sarong over my body for a sheet and mosquito protection, and drifted off to sleep.

NEXT:
PART 2: Fiesta on the 4th Floor

Foreigners in America Beware!

So I searched on googlenews.com for “South America” and the number two article (after “South America Headed Towards Unification” was this article: Foreigners in America Beware! Not up to date on the news and being a foreigner in America, I quickly checked. I suggest you do the same.

I guess here’s a little something I’d forgotten after being a month in Peru.

My favorite quote:
Foreigners in America beware! Someday our patience will end, and then the despicable, lying mouths of the foreigners and corrupt politicians will be closed forever.

It’s hard to look in the mirror. I would like to tell myself that this is not a strongly held opinion but it was number two on googlenews for some reason… probably because lots of people check that site out…

forever is a really long time…