Uyuni Blues II

After the necropolis:

The night was cold and the extra sleeping bag was absolutely necessary and sufficient. Would have been fine with what I came with but all my warm clothes are gone in anticipation of the lowlands. No one could sleep well. No salt today but lots of lagoons. Multicolored ones rocks shaped like trees, kind of like Utah. It was a day filled with driving interspersed with 10 minute stops to see a rock or a lagoon, then another 10 minute stop. We ended in a place (hostal) where everyone else did. Or rather 6 other groups did. 36 tourists doing the same thing as you are for, perhaps, probably, a different price. Everyone in my car had paid different prices for the same thing. The girls had paid $60 each (less than I did) and the Germans had paid $85 but that included return to Potosi. $65 was average for the cheap outfits.

Often the commodity itself is the expense. I was once told that VCRs that people do not trust $20 VCRs, they believe they will simply break and instead choosing the $40 or $50 models even though they are the same brand and probably the same components. They simply believe that a good VCR should cost a certain price and a cheaper product will almost certainly be lower quality.

Ours had problems typical of the cheaper outfits: our car’s starter and/or sparkplugs were dirty and/or broken. The salt is hell on the cars and they need heavy and constant maintenance. Many did not work, ours no exception. We pushed it to get started every time. Stephan and I did. One time we were stopped at a particularly boring group of rocks which were one the tour and it was freezing. It was always freezing but sometimes the wind was intolerable. Extreme conditions would be putting it lightly. I sat to write but our guide came and wanted to talk. He wanted to know where I was from and all that. “Very cold, huh?” was his favorite expression. I asked what his favorite part of his job was. “The tips.” He said. “Like your salary or the tips,” I asked. “The tips” he replied again.

It certainly takes the cork out of seeing beautiful things when you realize your guide doesn’t think they’re so beautiful. If it paid as much as tourism he’d stripmine the natural wonders in a heartbeat. There it was again: how does one understand how to give a good tour having never been on one and never having had the desire to go on one.

We saw many beautiful and amazing things. All the rock is igneous pillar lava. We saw a half squirrel / half bunny called a vinculla (?). We saw tons of flamingos. There was either salt / ice / borax / lye / or, were told, sulfuric acid in the water. The flamingos cared for naught except chilling out and running away from us, it seemed. I don’t think any fish live in these toxic waters but perhaps they looked for worms. Our guide told us that there were times when the lagoons were frozen over and there were no flamingos. They just disappeared for 2 months a year.

At the end of warm car vs. freezing outside we arrived at our hostal at 4:00 or so. Early. We played UNO (with German rules and ordinary cards). So the games were less interesting. We were playing with cards that had mixed drink recipes and pictures of the drinks on them. One of the Irish girls claimed to have the “greatest rule of all time”. It turned out to be that if the drink contained rum we would have to drink rum and if the drink contained whisky you had to drink whiskey. “With your permission of course” she added as an afterthought (she had not brought anything to drink). The game promptly ended when she added that you could only play hearts that were royals. Boring. With power comes responsibility.

People wandered around until dinner was served at 7:30. Lunch was veggie hamburger with salad and pasta. Dinner was spaghetti which BARELY passed for bolognaise. Lovely. We were freezing but sated. I offered to read Tarot cards for people from the deck of Coca Cola playing cards we had been playing UNO with. The 3 Irish girls were enthusiastic, giggly and skeptical.

They all asked similar questions about what would happen in the future about where they would live, their friendships, etc. These were all questions that had little to do with the future itself but rather things they had extreme control over. There is a big difference between “Will John and I be dating in a year?” (a question over which you have complete control) and “Will John still be in London when I return?” (which is a real question about the future, not just about things that are defined by your own actions). It turned out that, perhaps because of their shuffling (or lack thereof), the cards were almost identical for all three girls. Their questions were not entirely innocent either because they related to each other. For instance, will the 3 of us still be friends in a year will probably get a nasty answer 50% of the time. All this stirred the pot but by the time it got around to Stephan and Anna, who actually believed in Tarot cards, the three girls were more or less believers. Amid the hoots and hollers from the girls I turned over the cards. Stephan was more tuned into it than the girls and was easier to read. The reading seemed to indicate that he had just finished work on something and beginning something new. This new thing might fail due to naysayers. His lack of any reaction, positive or negative, told volumes. At this point Anna might have felt pressured into a reading and I believe she was. But it was out of my control now and the girls wanted to see what the cards had in store for her. It was becoming hard to concentrate but I felt in tune with the cards though not really aware of what I was saying. I had also built up enough courage not to hedge bets but to rather say things categorically. I told what the cards told: “Your biggest challenge is pragmatic: making sense of your money and finances … you have recently chosen a spiritual path, a path of exploration, in the future there will be victimization by you or others.” I looked up and she was crying in a very reserved way. “You’ll have to excuse me,” she said, “It’s just a little close to the truth.” Everyone was a little shocked though I’m not sure what else we had expected.

Neither Stephan nor Anna revealed their questions afterwards so their secrets were safe but I assume that they were similar in that they related to things which they secretly knew they must address but were asking about because they wanted reassurance before they stepped out to do it. Not finding guaranteed providence was hard for them. I felt guilty for hurting them and I tried to explain that I had only said what the cards had told me.

I read by candlelight for some time. I got to the part where Harry discovers about the philosopher’s stone.

The night was freezing and we were woken at 5:15 to start the car by pushing. We quickly realized we needed more folks. The magic number arrived at was 6 and 4 more men (tour guides) were rousted from their warm beds to help. They were none too happy but they did it. We pushed the car a good 20 feet before we discovered it was too cold for the engine to turn over and we would have to wait till the magical time of 6am. What they expected to happen at 6am I was not sure but the sun did not begin to rise until 6:15 or 6:30 so it was none too much warmer. We ended up using the rubber ties on top of the truck combined with my hammock ties to tow the 4X4. I was sure that they would break as the security lines were made only of rubber tires. They didn’t and with the tow and 3 people pushing, the car started and I returned to hot coffee and cookies and dulce de leche.

I used the “flush” toilets (bring your own flush) and we left late again to see the sites. Its funny how there can even be a late when you’re on vacation but somehow that happens when you’re working with other people’s agendas. For me, I don’t really have a time schedule. I will stay in a location for as long as it suits me or for as short as suites me. It is a marvel how easily we become the will slaves to the priorities of others, our betters, our leaders.

Unfortunately we needed to drop off the Irish girls at a bus stop near the Chilean border, which was really a small mining town named San Pedro. The girls needed to connect with San Pedro de Atacama. I had chosen to return to Uyuni because it’s cheaper to take the train from there ($5) to Argentina than the much shorter ride from San Pedro de Atacama ($35). San Pedro is expensive because… well… because it’s expensive. People often can’t provide good reasons for things being expensive. Things are just more expensive in Chile. They especially like to say it when there are outside Chilean companies coming into their country. I believe that the hateful trains to Machu Pichu are Chilean.

We visited a few things in rapid succession but the only thing we really cared about after 3 days in freezing cold and no showers was the hot springs. In such freezing weather the hot springs were a godsend. After these we visited a lake of copper. When the wind came fast the copper in the lagoon oxidized and became a brilliant green. I THOUGHT we had a strong wind but apparently the lake disagreed and there was a large red copper stripe shooting through the green. Then we dropped off the girls and returned to the thermal baths where we relaxed in the lovely water for almost an hour while Candy prepared lunch. Or rather, Stephan and I did and Anna wrapped her coat a bit tighter in her coat and dangled her feet in the water. It was absolutely lovely but I think it did us in. I think that it was at this point we bit off more than we could chew. Or perhaps sometimes it is in the moment of relaxation after stress (in this case stress on our bodies from sitting still for long periods, constant temperature change, dust and salt flying at our bodies in high wind) that we broke down. It also could have been the lunch…

The lunch was rice with “tuna” and salad. The others didn’t know the danger but I could recognize an old foe when I saw it. I immediately rooted through the trash bag to find the can. As I suspected, the can did not say tuna, only “fish.” If they did not specify the type then they did not also specify the parts used, though the can’s contents were replete with eyes, mashed bones and scales.

Perhaps in my tiredness and hunger I somehow doubted that it was this material that had caused Marco’s Disease in Machu Pichu (I have since heard from Marco and he is safely home in Sao Paulo). But, along with everyone else, even after examining the cans, thinking through the consequences I chose to get back on that wretched nag that threw me into the ditch and ride it, come what may.

And…

Nothing happened to me!

Stephan, however, became violently ill within minutes with many of the same symptoms Marco exhibited before drifting into oblivion. The severe diarrhea hit almost immediately. When we stopped to pay a visit to yet another lagoon he took the opportunity to first stumble and then crawl into the wind whipped desert and throw up in an attempt to expel the sardines. It sounds callous but I’m glad I got a picture because it really looked as if he one of those left to die in the desert with no food or water. This was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could wish for.

He was sick and became progressively worse. It got to the point where, when we were descending hills Valerio would ask if we needed a bathroom stop so we could restart the car if necessary. Valerio too was exhausted. Completely exhausted. He had been driving 10 hours or more every day since we had left. He also had the additional job of restarting the car, fixing the wretched Landrover and a million other tasks. Most of the fourth day he spent swerving on and off the safe track among rocks which we called, for simplicity, the road.

I had been coughing up a lung from being sick BEFORE I came here and the trip had not improved much. Both the Candy and Abel were also sick and we were all probably cross-infecting each other. Anna was feeling perfect, great – couldn’t be better. Except for her the tour was an infirmary on wheels.

Valerio tried his best to commiserate with Stephan’s illness. “It is probably the altitude,” he said, ignoring that Stephan had been at altitude over a month, “Many tourists have problems with the altitude when they first get here.” Then he added, “I’ve also been sick because of the altitude. Before I drove these tours I worked in a sulfer mine inside a volcano. On the first day it was so hard that I fainted. I understand how he must feel.”

By the time we arrived where we were to rest (3pm or so) Stephan couldn’t hold down pills and Anna was just beginning to criticize his self pity. Valerio went straight to bed and began writing and brainstorming ways to get medicine inside Stephan. Candy and Abel disappeared into the kitchen, presumably to cook dinner.

The Tour: Salt, Salt, Salt

We drove off into the Salar. The terrain became whiter and whiter and eventually turned into pure salt. Like in the rest of Bolivia there was not really a road, just a place where people drove. But unlike the rest of Bolivia, it was really not different from anywhere else. It was flat as far as the eye could see and it was because of this you needed a guide. I had always thought of needing a guide in places like jungles and mazes but the sheer openness of desert it is far more frightening. I was reminded of a story by Borges, the famous Argentinian writer:

The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths

It is said by men worthy of belief (though Allah’s knowledge is greater) that in the first days there was a king of the isles of Babylonia who called together his architects and his priests and bade them build him a labyrinth so confused and so subtle that the most prudent men would not venture to enter it, and those who did would lose their way. Most unseemly was the edifice that resulted, for it is the prerogative of God, not man, to strike confusion and inspire wonder. In time there came to the court a king of Arabs, and the king of Babylonia (to muck the simplicity of his guest) bade him enter the labyrinth, where the king of Arabs wandered, humiliated and confused, until the coming of the evening, when he implored God’s aid and found the door. His lips offered no complaint, though he said to the king of Babylonia that in his land he had another labyrinth, and Allah willing, he would see that someday the king of Babylonia made its acquaintance. Then he returned to Arabia with his captains and his wardens and he wreaked such havoc upon kingdoms of Babylonia, and with such great blessing by fortune, that he brought low his castles, crushed his people, and took the king of Babylonia himself captive. He tied him atop a swift-footed camel and led him into the desert. Three days they rode, and then he said to him, “O king of time and substance and cipher of the century! In Babylonia didst thou attempt to make me lose my way in a labyrinth of brass with many stairways, doors, and walls; now the Powerful One has seen fit to allow me to show thee mine, which has no stairways to climb, nor walls to impede thy passage.”

Then he untied the bonds of the king of Babylonia and abandoned him in the middle of the desert, where he died of hunger and thirst. Glory to him who does not die.

As we drove through this snowy wilderness we would stop at various touristic places. First there was the salt refinery. It is family operated and everything is done by hand. There was once machine run factory down the road but it had to shut down because they could not afford to keep the machinery running. Now there are about five families and they each work a different salt patch. It is hard to explain but these people literally live in a world of salt. All they have to do is walk outside their house, put a shovel in the ground and they have a shovelful of salt. Many of the houses are even made of salt. The families do not own the salt, no one does, but they do not let anyone else mine the patches.

We had come during the windy season when they could not refine any salt. To refine the salt they use fire and the fire can quickly spread to other buildings. I assumed that they had learned this from experience. All the work in the refinery was done by hand, without gloves. I asked why they couldn’t use gloves but they just said it wasn’t possible. The lady told us that the salt burns their hands terribly but this is the only way they can do it.

We were invited to buy salt ashtrays, salt llamas and salt dice-cups with dice made out of salt. We didn’t buy anything. I wanted to but I have no way of carrying souvenirs.

The next stop was a salt hotel. Instead of asking for a “propina” they required you to buy a small, overpriced item from their store. We all did. It was a house made of salt with crushed salt on the floor. I was impressed only with its ugliness, its dirty salt bricks. If you go there expecting a shiny white building, think again. Imagine living in a sugar cube for a few years… then imagine the bathroom. More than that I cannot say.

The third, final and best stop of the day was Fish Island. Fish Island is in the shape of a fish though I doubt any fish has lived on it for several million years at least. It is, however, made of coral. It was part of the seabed in the ocean that once was here. Millions of years ago volcanic activity isolated this part of the ocean from it’s source and the sun dried it out, leaving only the scorched salt. It was this same volcanic activity that made Lake Titicaca.

In this ex-oceanbed cum desert the wind has free reign and whips through relentlessly in the winter months. I have been in a minor dust storm in the crater of Mitzpeh Ramon in Israel but I would hate to be in a salt storm.

At Fish Island we ate llama steaks, quinoa and salad. Delicious. The Irish girls had said they did not eat llama. We told them it was cow and they loved it.

From Fish Island it was a few hours to where we would sleep that night. The vast majority of the tour involved sitting in the car and making small talk. The three Irish girls sat in the back and I sat in the front with the German couple. The backseat talked mostly amongst themselves about the places that they’d been and things they’d found there. They liked Argentina for its steaks and wine and they liked Mexico for its mixed drinks on the beaches. Two had worked together in a bank: one in equities and another in fidelities. The other is a speech therapist. All had quit their jobs to move away from London together. This trip was their big fling before the move.

German couple was composed of two university students: the boy (22) of information systems and the girl (20) of geography. I made small talk but with them but it kept turning to politics, which they did not like. At one point I remember saying “I feel great… I feel like I…” “Like you’re 20 again?” the girl said, completing my sentence for me. We both laughed.

We arrived at the place we were to sleep that night. The I went with the Germans to view the Necropolis nearby. When this land had been underwater, long before the Andes were formed, the Necropolis was a coral bed, the kind you could imagine the little mermaid playing in. We explored the labyrinth of natural mausoleums in the half dark. These coral caves now store the bones of some forgotten people.

We returned to a lovely dinner: Vegetable soup and chicken suprema (which is chicken, fries and fried banana). Foodsharing is an important art and this German couple could have been professionals. For example, above the usual snacks like chocolates, candies, chips, and cookies they had brought loaves of bread, ham, cheese, condensed milk, 10 liters of Coca cola and whisky to mix it with. They had even brought limes. It was very impressive.

Before I had been feeling alone and isolated. It was nice to be stuck in a car with people who had nothing better to do than talk to me. It was also interesting to see what it was like for people to travel in groups. The girls were firmly stuck in their group of three. That evening I explained about SERVAS over a game of liars’ dice. One of the Irish girls said, “I’d love to do something like that but I’m traveling in a group…” It made me very happy to be alone, compromising nothing.

The wind howled outside. It sounded as if there were people trying to open the doors and windows, to get inside. I thought of the skulls tucked away peacefully in their coral beds while the wind raged around them.

The Tour: Exit Uyuni

I got up at about 8am and bought my train ticket out of Uyuni for when I returned from the tour on Saturday. Then, once I had spoken with the tour company I had to return it because it turns out they had made the tour an extra day (“at no extra charge… of course”). I did not want an extra day on the tour, I just wanted to get out of Bolivia. I was not given options and I did not really care that much so I went along with it.

On the trip was a German couple and 3 Irish girls on an “around the world” ticket. However, we did have to wait a few hours while 3 of our trip staged a sit-in protest in the tour company’s office. They had been promised an English translator and there was none to be had. They wouldn’t leave without one. The tour company was very upset and did not want to leave without them. They did call the Irish girls all sorts of nasty things including “foul people” and “Israelis”. The tourist police were eventually called. Unlike her counterpart of the day before, she was sober, at least enough to say “There is simply nothing you can do: you must go on the trip.”

The tour company was completely befuddled by the whole process. Even the tourist policewoman was confused: “Usually tourists get upset because they find out at the last minute that they are being overcharged for their English guide. But this is the first group that wanted to pay extra for one that I have encountered. I don’t know why these girls don’t just learn Spanish and enjoy our culture.” I tried to explain that the girls had really been upset by the cultural principles involved in keeping one’s word and I think it was lost on them. While everyone in the town seemed to be involved in the touring business, I doubt there was one among them who had ever been on a tour in his life! They offer products they do not consume themselves and, like the chef without taste, the blind traffic cop, and the deaf composer, often wonder why they have dissatisfied customers. Beethoven was a prodigy and we shall speak no more of him.

The Irish girls held out for another hour until someone’s grandmother was summoned to translate English. At this, the point of the Irish girls was proved and they decided to go on the trip and give some money to the German girl who spoke excellent English as well as Spanish and, of course, German. She would be their translator.

Personally I’m glad we didn’t have a paid guide who spoke in a second language. They often feel they have to speak just to prove that they can. They are misleading at best.

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.

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.