Monday, December 31, 2012

Ecology's Ecology

“I don’t know if I can afford this,” I think to myself looking up at the night sky out here in Fremont California. Lately, the night has been clear and cold, the sort of weather that looks beautiful but lends itself to the kind of thinking that is accompanied with lots of sighs. Either, you’re bundled up but still feeling the cold creep in and thinking of someone who could be with you, someone who’s absence is all the more profoundly felt in the presence of the cold, or you’re bundled up looking out over the horizon, thinking of a place less dark than this one where it never seemed to get this cold. Either way, you’re thinking about what you don’t have. Because I’m back where I want to be and with someone I love, my thoughts about what I don’t have drift to the most ordinary and boring topic. It almost makes me wish that I were alone on the other side of the world again, sighing much more profoundly. I try to chase the thoughts away, but nothing will come in their place. “1,400 dollars, how was it that I thought we’d be able to afford that?” I think to myself. The night is so clear, I can practically hear myself muttering it. I thought we could afford that because it was the going price for apartments around here. In San Francisco, nothing is under 1,000 dollars and if it’s not a couple of hundred dollars over a thousand it’s not going to be any good—the thousand dollar studio I went to see in someone’s garage in Daly City can attest to that. The reason the problem is so disconcerting to me is that it’s not one I’ve ever anticipated having. Since the day I moved out of my parents’ and rented out a place in Chicago my all-consuming thought has always been “I don’t need all of this,” and the next time I’d move I’d try to find something starker, cheaper. Depending on who I lived with the level of amenities went up and down slightly. Living with my friend Mikey in the Tenderloin, we went through unhealthy periods of almost conspicuously lacking soap. When I came back from the Peace Corps and lived in a flop-house type of place in Eureka I didn’t have anything, and the few things I did own I had to take with me when I left for fear that someone would steal them. And living in a hostel in the Once
district of Buenos Aires, I kept two plastic bags, one with my toiletries and the other had my food and cooking supplies. The change from the mendicant’s life was very subtle and came from two very reasonable desires. The first came after living away from my friends and family for so long. Having no one familiar to share an apartment with, I often had to find people, college students, meth addicts, willing to pay a share of the rent. After meeting Gina and moving in with her, I realized how much I’d missed sharing my room and my house with someone I genuinely wanted to be there, not just someone I had to put up with. The other change came after the second time I’d lived in an apartment from which the sole view was a brick wall. Anyone who’s ever had to live with such an unsightly obstruction more than once will understand. Considering these two factors, when I began my apartment search, I found that I didn’t want to share the apartment with anyone and that I wanted to have at least a little natural light in there so on Sunday morning I could stay in and have my coffee and not feel like shooting myself. These two specifications, as you can imagine, drove the cost of living up significantly. Even with the price being what it is, I was still unable to find anything that I’d really call habitable. A lot of the cheaper studios are usually in-law units, almost all of which are in direct violation of my rule about sharing the apartment with someone, not to mention certain building codes. I still consider it sharing, when you live in trailer in someone’s driveway or in someone’s basement that you have to walk through their living room to get to. Besides, as you can imagine, these places almost universally, had no view, no light and windows that were so tiny or close to walls they may as well have been painted over. After looking for a few days, I expanded the price range on the search. Suddenly, I seemed to have a few more options, but I still wasn’t seeing anything that looked very good. I decided to go and check out everything that wasn’t an in-law unit anyway. One place is out in the Richmond with its endless rows of houses and torrential leaden skies and notable obscurity. There is no picture for the rental. Just a sentence or two, written in hurried capitals. “APARTMENT FOR RENT. 1,400. STUDIO. CALL FROM 9-5 TO VIEW.” I’m not very enticed by the ad, and on the way over I’m starting to wonder why I crossed town to see this place that’s not going to be worth my while. My fears are confirmed when I step up to the address I had been given that morning. For the last twenty blocks or so, all the houses had been in a straight row. Nothing tucked away in the back or half-sunken into the ground. I am now standing in front of a gate and way back behind it there’s a little building, almost hunkered down in the shadows of the larger homes on either side of it. It’s going to be another closet with a sunless view of the underside of some much more affluent person’s porch. Seeing no one around I go through the gate and head toward the building, I’m thinking to myself, maybe I can just take a quick glance and get the hell out of here to not waste any more of my time. I see that, once I’m inside, the building has a certain antiquated charm. It only looks small compared to all the new houses around it, which they build too large anyway. The interior reminds me of an old house that someone has taken good care of in the Midwest. There’s more light in the building than you’d expect. The landlord meets me as I’m coming back down the stairs. “Oh, y’ found it already, did y’?” His brogue is pretty thick and his bright red face is welcoming. “T’will y’ see the unit?” I’m hoping he’s going to lead the way upstairs but he reaches behind me and unlocks the door that I’m standing in front of. “First floor in the back,” I think to myself, “there’s no way there’s any light back there.” He opens the door, the place is being painted, that’s the first thing I notice, but almost immediately after, the window, the huge bay window and the little patio area behind it. “Would we get to use that?” I ask pointing to the patio outside the window. “I can’t see who else ‘t be using ‘t,” the landlord replies quite matter-of-factly. A patio of our own, a large window, it’s more than I’d even expected. I fill out the application right there. A few days pass in anticipation as to whether my credit scores will be good enough and when I’d almost given up the idea of living in such a nice place, the landlord calls me and Gina and I go over to sign the lease. Before we’ve even moved in, in fact, almost right after I’d signed the year-long lease, I began to wonder how this was going to work financially. I finish my cigarette out in the cold and open the door to head back inside. With the screen door in my hand I pause before opening the main door. The great thing about going out into the cold is being able to return to a warm house. As long as you can do that you can dispel any gloomy thoughts. I linger in the doorway a second longer, watching the bright and cold stars and thinking about how nice it’ll be to have my own place to watch them from. I just might have to pick up a few more hours a week to be able to afford the vantage

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Creation of a Myth

I. It will take me awhile to become fully American again, I think. While going all over the city to show up for vacuous interviews, I remembered an Armenian restaurant that I had been to once or twice, never actually to eat, only to say ‘hello’ to the owners who are, obviously, Armenian. I accidentally, met these people years ago, when I first returned from Armenia. There’s actually nothing to suggest that the restaurant is Armenian in anyway. It is merely another nondescript Mediterranean place on the outside. When I first returned to California, I went to this place because a friend of mine was working there. She had said that she thought the owners might have been Armenian. I obviously didn’t put too much stock in this because I’ve been introduced to all kinds of Albanians, Kurds and other Middle Eastern people over the years that acquaintances of mine had thought were Armenian. It’s very awkward approaching them with a hearty ‘Barev!’ only to me started at blankly. Of course, knowing that on the other end your friend has told this person that you speak their language; they’re waiting for you to say something intelligible, in Abkhazian or whatever, but getting nothing but gibberish. I was happy to find that the owner, when he came out was indeed Armenian. I think I started the conversation by saying something like “neretsek, bites inchu kilikia-i gaijur chunek stegh? Ays kotayk lav@ chi” (Excuse me, but why do you not have Kilikia beer here? This Kotayk is terrible!). I think he was really surprised to hear some un-Armenian-looking guy suddenly berating him in eastern Armenian (the diaspora speak the western dialect, for the most part) about his choice of Armenian beer selection. It was the beer selection that tipped me off initially that he was Armenian. If you weren’t Armenian, I don’t think you would ever go to the trouble of tracking down Armenian beer to serve. I think it’s a point of pride, even at the best Armenian places; I can’t imagine anyone orders that stuff, at least not more than once. After I explained that I had a preference to Kilikia because I drank a lot of it in Armenia, and in the states all I could find was this terribly sweet Kotayk that was nothing like the Armenian original, we began to talk about what I’d been doing in Armenia. I had only been back for a few months after living there for over two years. It was the first time I conversed face-to-face with someone in Armenian since I had left, and if I had had a few drinks before going over there I probably would’ve been pretty close to tears. The owner and I had a nice conversation. He’s had things to do, but he kept darting back over to the bar where I was sitting to ask if I needed anything. I wouldn’t have to pay, he said. I kept telling him ‘no’ and he kept asking. It was very much like being back in Armenia. Eventually, I decided to get back to my friends. I thanked the manager and started to go out. He yelled after me to come by any time I’m back in town. Since then, I’ve been back once or twice for a Kotayk, still no Kilikia. It occurred to me to stop by the place while job hunting, but I’d been trying for years to stop into a café where I used to work and see the owner there. We always missed each other. Owners are very elusive people. I decided to call instead. See if I could set something up. When the phone began ringing, I realized I had no idea what I was trying to set up. “Hello,” bright sing-song waitress voice. “Yeah, uh, hello, is the owner there?” “Can I ask who is calling, please?” “Uhhh, yeah, um, well, I met him a few years ago, uh, I used to live in Armenia and he and I spoke to each other. I’m actually looking for a job now and, uh, I thought I’d see if he, um, could talk to me.” “Well he’s not in now, but I’m the front-of-the-house manager, if you’ve got a resume why don’t you drop it off with me in the morning.” ‘Yeah, sure’ I thought,’ just so you can get a look at the weirdo who just made the strangest call to your restaurant. Maybe his resume will be equally amusing: experience: I once talked with your boss.’ I wasn’t even going to go in the next day. In fact, I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t ended up being way too early for another interview that I had out in the Marina. The interview was at 1 and I wasn’t particularly thrilled about it. It was 11 and I was already out in front of the café where it was to take place. It was an incredibly bland kind of place. I had applied for the job because the ad made it seem like the café was in the middle of the Presidio park. I had pictured some little forest ranger’s station that had been converted into a café, a place that few customers ever found, but that was preserved in complete tranquility, sunlight filtering through the pine boughs and that sort of thing. The reality was a concrete block of a building on the marina green that had a nice view of the Golden Gate Bridge, but almost no other redeemable qualities. As I sat in front of this place whiling away the time until my interview I suddenly remembered the phone call I had made, and how I had told that manager that I would be in before noon. I had my bike with me and decided to drop by, I certainly had time. The front-of-the-house manager was actually really nice. Perhaps she had mentioned the strange phone call to the owner and he had actually shown some interest. Every time I have gone into a business looking for work I feel odd. I am not there for the customary activity of buying something. I am there to ask for something and it makes me feel like a bum. In asking for a job, one essentially has to look at the employees and say, “I want what you have.” No one every responds well to this statement, no matter the context. The odd feeling descended on me as I asked for the manager. She came out and looked over my resume, very briefly, mentioning a delivery job. Hmmm. I hadn’t expected that, but OK. She says the owner’s not in, but that his son is. She went and got him. He comes out speaking Armenian; I walk up to him speaking Armenian. We are happy to see each other, although we met only once before. I tell him I’m looking for work. He immediately offers me a shot at the delivery position. I have no experience with deliveries. He says it doesn’t matter. I don’t have a car. Again, it doesn’t matter. He says it’s only a couple of days a week. That seems to be the only catch. I walk out the door already beginning to think it over. It’s funny. Since I’ve been back here, I’ve applied to probably 30 cafes and have gone into interviews at a few of them. I’ve got a lot of experience in cafés—but I couldn’t manage to get a job at one of them. On the other hand, I’ve got absolutely no experience working as a delivery driver and now I’m doing it. I can’t help but to wonder if a bunch of guys with years of delivery experience applied to the job I have now and are currently at home, scratching their heads, trying to figure out why they never even got a call back. II. Between deliveries, my co-worker and I have lunch at the restaurant. It’s free, not even any of that 60% off stuff, it’s just free; also, I can take whatever I want, so it’s more like a free buffet. After we finish eating we have one more delivery to do and then it’s time to go home. After work, I stop by and see my friend at the bike shop where he works. I need a few things. When I get there he’s out for a smoke. We stand around and talk for a while. Then we go in and I tell him the things that I need. He gives them to me and we keep talking. After a while it seems slightly uncomfortable to continue the conversation because he’s now sitting behind the counter and I’m still standing in front of it. The customer/clerk relationship keeps trying to assert itself and interrupt out friendly banter. Every time the conversation fades, I find myself toying with the items on the counter, like, ‘you wanna’ ring me up for these?’ While he keeps looking everywhere but at the items on the counter. I finally take the hint and pocket the things. Before we part ways I ask, just to be sure, if he wanted anything. ‘No,’ he says. I go to pick up Gina from work. I’m waiting outside reading a comic book when she comes out with a whole bag of baking mixes. “What’re all those?” “Cookie, bread, pancake mixes, the owner gave me all this stuff to try.” She got about four big bags. All labeled ‘gluten-free!’ and ‘vegan!’ “That stuff looks like it would’ve been expensive.” “Yeah,” she says, “it would’ve been, but she just gave it to me.” I think for a moment before I ask her if she’s eaten already. “Yeah, I get my lunch for free every day, don’t you?” “Yeah,” I say, “yeah, I guess I do.” III. I haven’t really been driving regularly since I was about 17. When I lived in San Francisco years ago, my roommate Mikey had a car and we took turns going out to the Western Addition about twice a week to move the thing to a different parking spot. Other than that, I’ve only driven rental cars driving back and forth across the country before and after I left for the Peace Corps. Naturally, having a job for which the main duty is driving, I had a few concerns, the main one being parallel parking. “I used to be able to parallel park pretty well,” I told Gina the night before I was to go in and drive up to Marin county for my first day of deliveries. “But now I’m nervous about it. While I was driving around with my co-worker the only time he really had to parallel park was right in front of the restaurant. There’s only one spot there and it’s hemmed in pretty tight by other cars. You know how the parking is here in some places.” “Oh, you’ll be fine,” she tells me, much as she always does when I’m worried about something. The next day, I’m getting everything together for the deliveries with my boss. He tells me to go out and get the car, which was parked a few blocks away. “Just pull right up front here,” he tells me indicating the spot, which is barely a spot, wedged as it is between two rather large SUVs. I try not to really think about it as I’m getting the delivery car, but when I’m having trouble even getting out of the spot the car’s parked in, I start to feel less sure of myself. I pull up in front of the restaurant and the boss is already there on the sidewalk, motioning for me to park right between the two monster cars, completely oblivious to the fact that he’s going to have to fire me in a few minutes when he realizes that I can’t properly parallel park. I flash back to my first driver’s ed. test. When someone had told me that I didn’t need to worry about parallel parking because as long as you did OK on everything else it wouldn’t really matter. “OK, now let’s try the parallel parking section,” the instructor says. I groan and pull up along the orange cone. Somehow, as I’m backing up, I end up perpendicularly parked in the spot. I give him a nervous smile. “Let’s try it again,” he says. And I do, twice more until I’ve failed the test. I’m imagining my boss telling me something similar after two or three unsuccessful attempts to park the delivery truck. I’m right up against the car ahead of me. I sigh, and begin backing up. A minute later, I’m outside the car, beaming. Somehow it’s almost a perfect job. The truck is flush with the curb, almost a textbook example. Probably beginners’ luck, but who cares, for now, I act like it’s something I do all the time and I go inside to get the deliveries, hoping that the next time will be just as easy. IV. ‘I hate this place,’ I think to myself, ‘why do I keep coming back in here?’ Niles, California, a small town that’s sandwiched between two larger suburban towns, is the exception out here in the southern East Bay in that it’s got both a walkable downtown and stores that are smaller than warehouses. Niles itself is nice; it isn’t Niles I hate, not at all, it’s this bar, really the only bar near where Gina and I live. As far as I know, there are only two others within walking distance. One is to the north, and since we have to walk that way every day to get on public transportation, it’s not very appealing. The other is an almost perfect little place that seems to be exclusively Mexican. We once tried to order a few cans of Tecate in there. “Cuando vale la cerveza?” “Cinco.” “Cinco!? Cada una? Verdad? En las latas son cinco?” “Si.” “No, es demasiado.” The bartender was not in any way annoyed. She hadn’t actually opened the cans so she was still able to put them back, while giving us an inscrutable-kind of smile. One that could have either said, ‘stupid gringos; come in again and I’ll tell you the beers cost ten dollars!’ Or, ‘yeah, I guess these are expensive, but, hey, if people pay that much what are we going to do?’ I liked the place, and as we walked by it again last night, I thought about stopping in to see if the beers were still five dollars. But then I realized that I would feel like a moron if the same bartender came over and told me that the beers cost five dollars. If she remembered me, which was likely in an all-mexican bar, she’d probably wonder why I was asking the same question again. It’s not like I could reasonably expect the prices to have gone down within a few weeks. Thinking this, Gina and I walked past the Mexican place. There’s a little pizza place where one can get a Blue Moon for something like 4 dollars, but I didn’t feel like sitting in a pizza place. I wanted to feel like I had gone out and done something when I got back home. When we last had a beer at the pizza place, it was less memorable than stopping to have a soda or something. There didn’t seem to be any reason for us to be drinking a beer in this pizza place. It was a place for eating greasy meals and maybe lingering for a while after. It was a place to eat with your family, or a group of your friends. It was not a very good place have a single beer with your girlfriend on a Saturday night. It felt like even passersby were wondering why we didn’t just stay in and have a beer at home. We passed the pizza place as well, and I started to complain that I would’ve liked to have done something that night. Gina reminds me of my options. I don’t like the sound of them. There’s only one choice left, the biker bar. It’s coming up on the left. We’d been to the biker bar exactly twice before. The first time was great. Gina’s brother and sister and brother-in-law were all in town. We had ourselves only just moved in and hadn’t even been to Niles yet, when it was suggested that we go. We went to a nice restaurant and had a couple of beers and, since it’s been a while since we’d all seen each other, we decided to change the venue rather than call it a night when we paid the bill. After a couple of beers and some pleasant conversation, the biker bar wasn’t a bad place to find oneself. We ordered some more beers and were soon dancing to the ridiculous covers the band was playing. It was slightly ironic, but still we were dancing and enjoying ourselves a great deal. When we went home, I remember thinking to myself, OK, there seems to be a few places to go right down the street. About a week later, Gina and I went back by ourselves. It was lightly raining and the walk was somnolent, but relaxing. We talked about looking for jobs and the future. I opened the door for Gina knocking down a wall of sound that should’ve stayed intact. The door was practically blown off its hinges by bassy classic rock, slamming glasses and the raucous, shrill shouts of drunken, middle-aged women. Right away, I was annoyed. The bar didn’t have anything cheap, so I bought Miller High Life or something that had a slight malt-liquor taste to it. We sat down over in a corner. I couldn’t hear anything, everyone was yelling. Not like classic bar it’s-loud-in-here-I-have-to-yell-to-be-heard, but rather an I-think-I’m-just-going-to-yell-for-the-hell-of-it. Most of the yells were sharp, yippy almost and made me feel jumpy, like when someone comes up behind you and honks an air horn. I wanted to smoke. It’s the kind of place that still seems like it should be filled with smoke, even after the ban. You can’t take your beer outside; you can’t smoke inside. The only thing to do would be to leave the beer and go smoke, which didn’t make any sense. So I just stayed in there, feeling annoyed and drinking my beer as fast as I could without chugging the thing. We left the moment we were finished. On the way home I tried to explain what I had felt. “I don’t know what happened; I suddenly just felt extremely annoyed with everything going on in there. The way maybe a child or a cat will annoy when it does the same annoying thing over and over, only it was like a whole room full of people doing things like that.” “Yeah,” Gina said, “I know what you mean. It’s just sad, they’re all middle aged people acting like they’re teenagers.” “That’s not even what annoys me,” I added, “it’s like the whole collective feel of the place. It’s like it’s stupid, depressing and agitating all at the same time.” This talk went on for a while. I think by the time we had gotten home we agreed that we wouldn’t go back there again. And, accordingly, a few weeks later, here we were again, in front of the door. “Well,” I say with a sigh, “we might as well go in.” It’s even louder and more stupid in there than it was before. There’s lots of yelling, there’s a band playing that has too many songs with the phrase ‘hoochie-coo’ in them and this time we end up paying over five dollars apiece for our beers. Almost before we’ve sat down I’m irritated to the point where I can no longer possibly enjoy myself. I launch into some kind of invective against the place that I can’t seem to stop. When we left about ten minutes later, I felt an almost tangible sense of relief. The strange part is, as we walked back home I tried to think of what it was that really annoyed me so much about the place. I’ve been to plenty of places with bad music and people yelling, but whatever it is that upsets me about that place is much deeper, deeper an apparently ineffable.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Response to Whole Foods Job Inquiry

I came back home and found that the resume that I had sent to Whole Foods had been rejected and was almost immediately inundated by a wave of apathy. I went and raked some leaves up in the yard to get the shot to my self-esteem out of my mind, but it seems that it’s something on which I want to brood for a while. I want to brood on the whole farce that has been my job search since I’ve been back here. When we got back to the Bay I was resigned to live in the East Bay for a while. Rent was free, the area was quiet and we would be able to help out Gina’s family if they needed us. We got into town the Friday after Thanksgiving and I decided that it would be best to relax before going out to look for a job over the weekend. On Monday, I got all dressed up and set out toward Niles, which I had seen a little of over the weekend. Upon arriving in the townlet I found everything to be closed and figured that I would walk into Fremont proper and see what was available. Fremont, when I got down town, was little more than shopping complexes strung together down a double-wide boulevard. It reminded me a little of unwalkable suburban Detroit, only here there were bike lanes and sidewalks, albeit unused. I had only been back in the country about two weeks at this point so I was still enjoying the newness of the area. Personally, it was new, as in something I hadn’t experienced in a while and it was also new, as in brand new. Everything shone, everything smelled of fertilizer, warm plastic or new car smell. It was the America that people who don’t like America complain about or the America that tourists are happy to leave behind but also happy to return to. For me, ut was just another permutation of America. It didn’t represent the majority, nor could it be called an under-represented minority. I was still thrilled by the variety of stores and the variety of things they had inside them. On one corner there was a Safeway, a Trader Joe’s and the future site of a Whole Foods. Inside Safeway there are now something like 10 varieties of Wheat Thin cracker. I walked around for the morning into the afternoon walking toward businesses, peeking in, and usually walking away. It wasn’t the look of the places that deterred me, but rather the age of the employees. It’s much easier to work at a place you feel overqualified for when you’re in good company. In San Francisco and other large cities, grocery stores and cafes are usually full of twenty-somethings waiting for something else to come along. The job would really be a career and everyone who came in would know that you didn’t think of it as such. In Fremont, it felt like something more permanent. I would be working with a bunch of high-school students. Either they would try to promote me to management right away or I would remain a grocery stocker, happy, but annoyed that I hadn’t at least been offered the promotion so I could’ve turned it down. I dropped off one resume at a little café. The owner happened to be in and he gave me a little impromptu interview. I felt I did OK and after finding little else decided to go back home. That night, I decided to check out Craig’s List for the area. It hardly yielded anything: mostly driving jobs, very little service industry stuff. All the businesses hiring were chains and I could guess what the majority of their staff looked like. I checked in San Francisco, out of curiosity and found a flurry of jobs, mostly independent cafes in hip neighborhoods. I decided then that I would look for a job in San Francisco and that I would commute until we moved. It seemed like a good choice. I had once found a café job there with no experience within a week. If I moved my search over to the city I could be working within no time, or so I thought. The next day I began checking Craig’s List. I have been checking it ever since. Every day there are at least 3 new barista jobs posted. So far, I have applied to all of them. I’ve been called in for two interviews. Both of them ended with face-to-face encouragement and then an e-mail a day or two later that broke the news that I had not been selected. With so much café experience, I am surprised that I am having such a hard time convincing these people that I am qualified for the job. I could understand if there were a serious dearth of jobs, but with so many posted every day it seems like I would be the right guy for one of them. Most employers don’t even get back to me. I write concise cover letters for each position, attach my resume and then never hear anything back as though I had sent it into a void. And that’s how it’s beginning to feel, like a void. Whole Foods was a desperate act. I hadn’t really even considered it, but Gina mentioned maybe trying to get a job there. When I found a store that was hiring online, I decided to send in my resume. I wrote that I had complete availability, years of experience in customer service and knew my way around a cash register. ‘No,’ they said, ‘you’re not what we’re looking for.’ What are these people looking for? Do I need a PhD to work there? Should I have left the degrees out of my education section? The promptness of the rejection made it even worse. I sent the application out this morning and had a rejection e-mail by 4 pm. They obviously saw something about my application that actually made it STAND OUT as unworthy. I don’t care about working at Whole Foods, and I’m actually not all that concerned about getting a café job, but dammit this does not bode well for getting any kind of professional work. Along with my café search, I have been applying for editing positions as well as internships. Often the requirements to apply for these jobs take me all morning to get together and/or write. Since I have begun applying for these jobs I haven’t heard a word back. You’d think that a local guy with complete availability and a Master’s degree would be qualified to work at an entry-level position for free, but no one has even bothered to tell me ‘thanks for trying.’ So, I’m back where I started again, practically addicted to Craig’s List, searching the classified about three times a day. New ideas keep popping into my head throughout the day and I want to rush back home and send an e-mail to a place I used to work, or send a Facebook message (a Facebook message fer shit’s sake!) to a Georgian restaurant that’s going to open in the Spring, just saying something like, ‘Gamerjobot, how about a job?’ Even now, I am consumed by the idea that perhaps I have missed a job posting in the time that it had taken me to write this. I don’t want to let the Whole Foods thing get me down, but I am tired of looking for jobs. I’d like to have some kind of work, so that I could continue the job hunt with a little more peace of mind.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Way You Don't Look in The Rain

The ride back up doesn’t evoke any emotion. I didn’t think that it would so I’m not surprised. After what is beginning to feel like months of constant traveling, going back up to Arcata just feels like another long trip. The first few hours are engaging enough, but eventually, I tire of my book. I tire of being in the car and I start to feel annoyed that I decided to come up here. The further north we go, the more beautiful the scenery becomes and the more disinterested I feel. What I’m looking at is much more beautiful than a lot of what I’d seen in South America. The stands of pine sweeping up and down the remote hills induce a calm that is tinged with melancholy. I cannot look at an endless forest without feeling what it would be like to be lost in the middle of it somewhere. It’s a familiar feeling, yet I don’t pay it much attention. I concentrate more on the fact that it’s been four hours and we’re still in the car and how the road winds relentlessly and how I haven’t had a job since the beginning of October. Arriving in Arcata, there is only the relief that comes of arriving at a destination, and destination, after a long drive. I take a second to stretch in the garage and I look around a little. Yeah, it’s the old neighborhood; the last place I lived before I moved to Argentina. For a moment, I remember how I missed a few things when I left. The first month in Buenos Aires when I thought about the clerk at the grocery store and the hidden paths that surreptitiously connected neighborhoods. For a time, I had thought about these things a lot. Even after Gina came down and I had the most important part of my life in Northern California with me, she and I would still reminisce about the smells and the colors of certain trees at night. In the city of 12 million people, they were the memories that were unique to us and we kept them until we forgot what we needed them for. As I stood looking around, I only thought, ‘here is another place I have already been.’ I felt neither positive or negative about that. When I went to sleep the thought was still there, unchanged and almost oppressive. It’s always nice to have coffee ready and waiting in the morning. I waking up, I smelled the coffee in gradually cooling in the kitchen, a smell that had always reminded me of the early mornings of my childhood and, thus, of Christmas. I take a cup and settle into a chair. The sun had only recently come up. I have nothing to do. I contemplate reading and drinking coffee throughout the day. I don’t have to find a job here. There’s no reason to hurry into town; I know from experience that there’s not very much there. Everyone at my old job will be different. It will be awkward to go in and look around for the one familiar person. The sights will be more or less the same and thinking of going back to campus makes me feel ashamed that I have done nothing with the degree I earned there already over two years ago. I read on the couch for a while, listlessly drinking coffee. My concentration begins to bounce a little and by about eight I’m beginning to want a long walk for the air and for the introspection that I may find in it. Right now, I can’t even concentrate on this National Geographic article. Gina and her mom are going to a dentist appointment. I am going to take a walk. Outside, the fog is beginning to burn off. The smell is something that seems to clean everything. It provides all the satisfaction of throwing a bucket of mop water onto dusty concrete. Walking through the fading fog, I think it pulls at you a little as it evaporates; it’s a lifting kind of feeling. I begin to pay a little more attention. I pass the old house and decide to walk up the driveway and take a closer look. Without even trying to summon the memory, I remember riding my bike up this way and how happy I always felt to be returning. There is the sound of the bells on the front door. The feeling of ‘Honey, I’m home.’ There is the warm panel of light hanging in the dark and the wet stars always looking so new like the gauze that covered them for so long had finally been ripped away. I go back to the road and feel the nostalgia a little for the first time. I walk with that slow gait of recollection, in which you feel like you’re being ferried through a place. When I cross the major street and the sun is fully out, I start to feel welcomed. I feel the familiarity of the place, not as something mundane, but as something fruitful. The trees, the clop of my shoes on the sidewalk, the car exhaust in the morning, it’s like they all combine to make up one thing that I’d nearly forgotten about. At the end of Baldwin, my old street, the nuance becomes absolute and there, in front of my old house, there I am. The way I was. I’m looking at myself, writing on the front steps, having a beer on the curb, talking on the phone in the parking lot. I am sitting inside the room with the shag carpeting, writing my thesis, the books scattered around me. I begin to feel the cold air in the room and decide that it’s time for a break. I walk outside and am confronted by myself, standing there, watching all these scenes that have passed. There is a brief moment of irreconcilability and then we walk off together, my past and present selves, to view the town where we parted so long ago.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I Can Miss Everything Now

Last night we had to negotiate our Machu Picchu tickets. I have to say that neither of us are really too keen on going to this tourist glutted spectacle. It’s an effort entirely for the dads. For whatever reason, dads seem particularly impressed with the idea of Machu Picchu and if you are going to go anywhere near it, expect that your dad will likely be more excited about the prospect of your visit than you yourself. I wouldn’t exactly call it a vicarious thing; I think my dad and Gina’s expect to one day visit the towering ruin for themselves. For now, because we are closer, it seems that we are expected to go. It’s not fair to put all the blame of Machu Picchu on my dad; he’s not forcing me to go or anything, he just thinks that a trip to Peru wouldn’t be complete with seeing the world’s largest miniature golf course. He’s not alone in his opinion. For that reason, there’s a well-established monopoly on visiting the site. Everything is priced in US dollars, to avoid startling tourists with astronomical sums quoted in Peruvian soles. Everything else in the area is relatively cheap, only in Cuzco do things go back up to western prices. For anyone traveling from Bolivia (like us) this is an incredible shock. Peru is a good deal more expensive than Bolivia and Cuzco is the most expensive place is Peru. For all that, it’s a matter of getting what you pay for. Last night, we had 4 dollar beers on a wooden balcony overlooking the Plaza de las Armas. The price would’ve been worth it for the view alone, but the beers weren’t too bad either. Later, when we attempted to go out to another bar, with another balcony, our efforts were foiled by a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint. I’ve eaten falafel in Syria; I’ve eaten falafel in Dearborn, Michigan (home of the largest population of Lebanese outside of Lebanon.) I have never in my life had falafel as good as the variety we were served last night. It may have been the shock of suddenly eating anything that had any flavor to it after over a year of living in Buenos Aires, where all the flavor is apparently monopolized by meat. It may have been that we weren’t expecting much from a falafel place in Cuzco. (We ate at a place in Uyuni, Bolivia that advertised falafel, but decided not to order it when they asked us if we wanted beef or chicken falafel-clearly, these people had no idea what they were supposed to be serving us.) We had eaten some fries at the bar, and to be honest, I was looking forward to having a night out, possibly having a few more beers and, for once, seeing one of the places that we had come to after 10 pm. But when I tasted that falafel, I was done for. The best thing I ate in Buenos Aires was falafel at an Armenian restaurant (in Armenia proper you’d never see falafel, even in eastern Anatolia, where most of the Argentine Armenians are from, I’ve never seen it anywhere except right in the Mediterranean ports, and even then it’s really more of a tourist dish), but compared to the sandwich we found ourselves eating on the street, it was nothing. The first bite was well-blended and creamy hummus, a piquant and spicy salsa, hot and crunchy falafel with just enough parsley and just a hint of cucumber and onion. The sandwich alternately ran hot and cold; it was some kind of epicurean masterpiece. By the time we finished the sandwich, I had no more desire for beer, or balconies. I wanted nothing more than to eat more falafel. I tried not to let on and we went off in search of another bar. After turning a few corners, we found ourselves in Gringo Alley, a narrow prospect off the Plaza de las Armas. In other touristy places of the former Incan empire, everything is alike; around the central square you can find eight restaurant serving exactly the same thing: Mexican, Italian, Vegetarian options! And it’s always the same over-priced garbage. In Gringo Alley, and around Cuzco, you have all the alternatives of a capital city. For one thing, Peruvian food makes much more of a name for itself than its Bolivian counterpart and everywhere you go someone is trying to entice you with calls of ‘ceviche, very good!’ There are also some other good-looking authentic Chinese places, which was something we hadn’t seen in a while, and just about every other kind of fare you could imagine. There was even a Korean place, that looked like the real deal. Of course, all of this passed me by in a blur and I saw nothing but another falafel place. Well, we had to try it, just to compare you understand. We sit around waiting for our sandwich speculating as to how it will match up to the other one we had. In the end, it’s every but as delicious, so much so that I am still having a hard time believing I am eating something so good. It seems to affirm so much for me: that my dreams of returning to my homeland are not just empty desires fueled by nostalgia and the craving for familiarity. No. Good food really does exist and it really is very important, given that it does more for my endorphin levels than anything else I can think of. Whatever her faults may be, America is full to bursting with such food and that alone will draw me back time and time again, at least until I finally visit Myanmar. If the rumors are true, I may never come back. By the end of the night, between us, Gina and I have eaten four falafel sandwiches. It’s not even ten o’clock when we climb the worn colonial stairs to our hostel. We sit at the top of the stairs and share a carton of mango juice. It too is delicious. We’ve booked our tickets for Machu Picchu and I’m sure that despite the crowds and the steep prices, it’ll will be something worth remembering, but in my heart of hearts I know that I will remember the falafel just as well and when people ask me about Machu Picchu I will dismiss it with a wave and start giving them directions to “this little place of Plaza de las Armas, oh god! You’ve got to go…”*** I’ve had too much coffee; I’ve been having too much coffee all day. It’s not that I’ve been drinking copious amounts of the stuff, but rather that I’m really tired; so tired, in fact that one cup of coffee seems to be making my heart flutter. Since five this morning, I’ve been vacillating between jittery and comatose. The trip is almost over and my ankles are covered with bed bug bites from all the cheap places we’ve stayed. I keep scratching myself. I keep nodding off. I keep drinking coffee and shaking. There is no longer any standard of behavior. It would probably be best if I drank a couple of beers, but I fear that the sudden shift of drug would overwhelm my already throttled sense of self. Luckily, this neurosis only just now overtook me and everything has already been crossed off the itinerary. We finished the trip by going to Machu Picchu yesterday. We now only have to take a bus to Lima, wait around a day and then catch our flight. The Machu Picchu thing went slightly better than expected. But, the trip was still odd enough to warrant writing about. After a day hanging around Ollantaytambo, we were able to get on our train going to Machu Picchu. Because the train is the only direct way to get near the sight, it is fairly expensive and owned by a private company that has nothing to do with Peru, despite the fact that the service is called Peru Rail. It is possible to get to Machu Picchu by alternative means, such as walking the tracks of the train, or by hopping around through a few pueblos by shared taxi, but since we didn’t have a lot of time (nor energy for that matter) we decided on the train. Because we wanted cheaper tickets we ended up with the most inconvenient times for both our arrival and return tickets. Hanging around Ollantaytambo was much more interesting than I had expected. Although the center of town went out of its way to cater to the transient tourist crowd, everything outside of the center seemed like a world apart. We walked down a narrow cobbled street and crossed the paths of sleeping dogs, playing children, and rutting pigs. The sound produced by all these events acting in concert created a medieval impression. It led one to expect hay carts and morality plays. The streets eventually opened up to a dirt road and the town ended abruptly at a bridge, almost like something supernatural unable to cross water. A large black lab crossed with us and pranced back and forth the way that labs do when they are with people and near water. We went through two Quechua-speaking villages and eventually had a motely of stray dogs following us until we stopped too long in an attempt to feed some intractable sheep. Along the path we saw several familiar sights, fragments of the pictures we had seen of Machu Picchu: terraces built up on cliffs, stairs built by longer rocks sticking out of a wall at even distances, gradually ascending and everything of the same emerald green and shale gray color. Seeing these traces of Inca culture for free and in a bucolic setting, made seeing the zenith of its accomplishments much less interesting after we had finally attained it. There is no avoiding it though; you simply cannot reason yourself out of going to Machu Picchu when in Peru. The train left at 9:30. By then it was dark and all the windows, both by the seat and in the ceiling, framed nothing but darkness. Nearly everyone on board slept. The luxury journey took on the appearance of a Greyhound on the second night of a three-day trip. There was a little more room in the seats and the lights shown more brightly but the attitude of the people was just as undignified: their shoes were off, their mouths were open. There weren’t too many people still awake when they came around to offer coffee and tea, but I was still barely clinging to my book and ordered a coffee with the haughty superiority of the sole passenger still awake in a cabin racked with snores and wriggling socks. It all backfired; the coffee was great, probably one of the best I’ve had, but, as frequently happens with excessive coffee drinkers, the small dose of caffeine made me drowsy as hell and within minutes my head was lolling back and forth. It wasn’t a long journey and I had probably only dozed about 15 minutes when we reached Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Pueblo. It had been just enough sleep to thoroughly confuse me and, stepping off the train into the carpet of train track slag, I was almost overwhelmed by the dark and empty spaces of an inorganic town, formed by the push and pull of the tourist industry that stretched out too long in some directions and broke off too quickly in others. A steward tried to direct us to the main square, but for some reason, I ignored him and continued walking down the tracks, perversely, in the direction from which we had come. I stopped to smoke a cigarette and conferred with Gina. There wasn’t much to confer about. We agreed on the obvious: find a hostel and go to sleep. To keep walking the tracks seemed like a good choice, it was taking us farther away from the touristy stuff, but there were still thousands of hostels, hospedajes, hotels and inns to choose from. We went into the first hostel that had a dim light and a name that didn’t have ‘Machu Picchu’ or ‘backpacker’ in it. The prices were listed on the board. ‘Doble’ 65 Soles. ‘OK, fine we’ll take that one. Wait, what? Dollars? 65 Dollars for a room?! Oh, hell no! I can tell just from this ‘lobby’ that the sheets haven’t been washed and that I’m going to wake up with bedbug bites.’ And we’re back out along the tracks. Everything else looks dark. The hospedaje next door looks like it’s out of business, but wait, what’s this? There’s a light behind that door. Let’s see what’s down here. Here’s what was down there: The stairs are rickety and they lead about 8 feet down to a basement lounge area that looks like something out of an old house rented by decades of hippy college students who have been re-using the same furniture since the 70s. “Hey, cool! There’s already a couch in here!” This ageless furniture has been placed in a semi-circle; there’s a scarred coffee table in the middle with too many packs of cigarettes on it. There’s five people sitting around the table; it looks like there’s about 11 packs of cigarettes. For obvious reasons, the air is really heavy with smoke, but it’s precisely the wrong smoke. Given the way these people sitting in this circle are acting, I would’ve loved to smell marijuana. I don’t like the way marijuana smells, but it would’ve greatly set my mind at ease as it would’ve proved that these kids were stoned on something familiar. As it was, there wasn’t the smallest hint of weed smoke in the air, and yet the crowd on the furniture seemed to be gazing through me, or looking at me as though I were a talking lamp. A guy gets up when I ask him about habitciones. He seems confused by my question, telling me he’s only got room for two. ‘Yeah,’ I say, gesturing to Gina, ‘ somos dos.’ He still seems confused. ‘Somos dos y quieremos un habitacion, si possible.’ He asks me where I’m from and he’s scowling slightly. I notice that there’s a girl sitting on the couch who’s been holding a lighter to a blackened pipe ever since we walked in the door. There’s no way whatever’s in it is coca-based, these people can barely seem to keep their eyes open. What then if not weed? Opium, heroine? I tell the guy that we’re from the US. I ask him where he’s from. ‘Argentina? We lived in Buenos Aires for over a year! Oh, you’re from provincia, how about that! Can we have our room now?’ He fumbles around for a while and finds some keys somewhere. He unlocks a door right by where they are all sitting. It’s not terrible, two twin beds, a private bathroom. It’s filthy, but that’ll probably take the price down. ‘How much?’ ’20 soles.’ For each of us?’ ‘No, for both of you, but you have to wait until the woman comes back. It’s her hostel.’ ‘Ok, thanks.’ I shut the door. I make sure it locks, not that it matters since he hasn’t given us the key. ‘Well, the price is good, but damn, this place is weird; what the hell are those kids all on?’ Eventually we decide that it’s not too weird, after all they’re all kids and I’ve never known anyone with dreads to be too violent. We decide to get up early and leave. I’m about to go out and tell the guy when he knocks on the door. I open it and he tells me if I need a bathroom there’s one down the hall. ‘There’s one right here in our room,’ I tell him. He doesn’t seem impressed with this new information and tells me once again that the woman will be here soon and I’ll pay when she shows up. I’m lying in bed, Gina’s showered and asleep and there’s no woman. The place seems relaxed enough, but after the window-breaking incident in Tupiza, I’m slightly paranoid and am wondering if I should go out and ask for the key. The back wall of our room is a window that looks out to where everyone was sitting on the 30 year-old furniture. The curtain won’t draw all the way so I can see that there are still a few people out there. The girl with the pipe and the lighter had earlier retired to the room across from ours. I saw her in there still holding the flame to the glass when the Argentine guy came in to tell me about the bathroom down the hall, should we not want to use the one in our room. While I’m considering what to do, I fall asleep. When I wake up the next morning, I am slightly surprised that our stuff is undisturbed and that we ourselves are unmolested. It’s about 5 AM. No woman had shown up and I can tell that everyone else is asleep. There’s no front desk, nothing except the front lounge area. I have the feeling that I’m 17 again and that I just woke up at the house of some acquaintance after a night of drinking. It seems odd somehow that I should even be expected to pay for the experience. Who’s going to care if we just leave? The girl with the lighter? Shit, is anyone from last night even going to remember that we were ever here? I decide to do the right thing and leave a 20 on the nightstand. Outside the morning is wet and grey, but already the temperature is beginning to rise. As every morning, I’m looking around for a place to get hot water for our coffee. There’s a hostel open down the street that looks like it’s got a breakfast table, maybe they’ll sell us some. ‘Hot water? Sure!’ the desk girl tells me, ‘how much do you need?’ Gina’s got the coffee stuff in her bag, so while she roots around for it, I tell the girl that we need about three cups full for our thermos. I can already smell the coffee brewing as we sit on a stone wall on the path to Machu Picchu. Gina’s still looking around in her bag and having run out of things to say to the desk girl I turn to help look. The thermos isn’t there. I check my bag, it’s not there either. The only place I can think to look is the hostel. I don’t want to go back. I’m afraid that someone’s going to be awake now. I’m afraid that the quoted price of 20 soles isn’t going to hold up in the light of day and someone’s going to try to charge me more, or say that they didn’t see any money left on the nightstand. Reluctantly, we go back down. The basement is still quiet. The couch seems to seethe with its own dust in the quiet morning. Gina goes in a checks the room, it only takes a second. No, the thermos is not there. Which means it’s gone. The thermos that my mom sent me when I was in the Peace Corps. I used it to do my laundry in Armenia, I peed in it on a bus in Bolivia and I’ve drank everything from Fernet and Coke to green tea out of it everywhere in between. Strangely, I wasn’t really upset. It was just a thermos, with so many others like it. It was bound to get lost somewhere, better now near the end of our trip that at the beginning. Eventually, I was able to communicate to Gina that I really didn’t care that much about the thing; I don’t think she believed me, but at least we were able to get past it and climb up the endless staircase to Machu Picchu for the day. We came back down around three PM exhausted and, almost impossibly, slightly more sunburned. The crowds and the rules of Machu Picchu had slightly annoyed me (there are a lot of people telling you where to go and what to do), but overall it had been a good day. I was also immensely happy after finding a cheap hostel (not 20 soles, but still cheap and much cleaner) and taking a long hot shower. After we had both showered, we were on our way to eat when I heard someone say ‘hola.’ Gina responded but by the same I had swung my head around there was no one there. ‘Did you see who that was?’ Gina asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘who was it.’ ‘It was those girls from the hostel last night.’ ‘Hmm, well, I guess it’s a good thing that we decided to pay. How is it that they even remembered us? They were so stoned.’

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sleeping in Your Clothes

Halloween passes completely without event. We’d gotten into La Paz at about 5 AM, hung around the bus station for an hour or so waiting for the sun to come up and then went off to find a cheap room. The ride back into the city from the northern jungles had been so ridiculously overwrought with peril that I harbored that strange feeling you have when it seems you are still alive despite having passed through a fatal or at least near-fatal situation. In a word, I felt ghostly, and it was easy to feel that way in an almost empty bus station at 5:20 AM. We had found one stall open where they sold coffee and sandwiches. The proprietress sold us coffee but was quite upset when we told her that we didn’t want anything else to go with it. She only allowed us to sit with our ghastly reconstituted coffees for about 10 minutes before asking us to finish and be on our way. (In Bolivia, when you order a coffee you do not get instant coffee powder with hot water, rather, at some indeterminate point in the past, they’ve already mixed the water with the instant coffee powder in a nearly 2-1 ratio. When you order a coffee, they produce this instant coffee concentrate and add hot water to it. It is worse than any instant coffee I’ve ever had. It may just be the power of suggestion because this stuff looks like garbage water, but somehow, I always taste soap or bleach in it.) We checked into a typical bus-station hotel, dirty carpets, sullied light coming in through the windows that somehow makes it always look like very early morning outside and a room crowded with beds. Our room was about 8x10, but somehow they managed to pack three very lumpy beds into it, all of them sort of parked around a small TV up on a stand, like kids in the 50s sitting around a radio listening to Little Orphan Annie. I was too tired to feel tired and took a shower before settling in to watch the bleary, eye-drying TV for a little while. There was some terrible show on about a dysfunctional family that lived in Chicago (it looked like Chicago, anyway). The teledrama’s trope seemed to be general scumbaggery. It gave me a terrible feeling watching it. I’m sure they probably had performances like that in Nero’s Rome as well, like a trait of cultural septicemia. I turned the show off before it was over and fell asleep in my clothes on the lumpy narrow bed. I woke up thinking it was much later than it was. Ten o’clock and we went out to get something to eat and pick up our Death Road pictures that the bike tour company had compiled for us. La Paz was outfitted incredibly well for Halloween. The next day was to be Todos Santos so in one of the central plazas they had all loaves of bread shaped like people for sale and that night The Nightmare Before Christmas was shown on TV, with the exception that it was called The Strange World of Jack, which, in keeping with the tradition of renaming American movies in Spanish, was a terrible change and told one nothing about the movie. The next day we left for Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The entire day before we had done almost nothing, celebrating the fact that we were still alive after our round-trip down the death road. We had drifted around La Paz until evening when we went out for a couple of beers at a nearby hostel that was much hipper than our bus station hotel. There were Halloween decorations up and drink specials on those tall beer glasses that always look like they are about to tip over. As I mentioned before, it was a night entirely without incident, which is why it seemed so unreasonable that I woke up in a terrible mood the next morning. After working a job in which I stayed in hotels all over Latin America, I’ve become very opinionated about the subtle things that make a good hotel. Over the course of my job, we probably only stayed in one place that would actually be called nice, and even then the difference was largely cosmetic, and mostly on the outside of the building. So, I refer only to hotels of slightly poorer quality. The ones with bare rooms, threadbare towels and the feeling of a long-faded grandeur that hangs around the lobby. Among these hotels there are certain qualities that make some better than others, about 99% of them having to do with the shower. But, the most important factor in the end has to do with coffee availability in the morning. I should stress here that I really don’t care about the quality of the coffee. In nearly every place we went it was instant, and often of bulk quality. I became accustomed to this; I didn’t like it, but it was to be expected. At five o’clock in the morning, coffee is coffee. No, it is not the quality, what truly sets the good apart from the bad is if it is available at all. In my mind, the finer hotels begin breakfast services (which consist of coffee and a basket of mummified rolls, maybe some jam or butter)very early. After all, in places like Rio Quarto, Argentina, or Rancagua, Chile, most people are not there on vacation. Like us, they have some kind of work to do in the town. They will probably be getting up early. In such places, when we rose at 5 or, if we were lucky, 6, inevitably, the other patrons of the hotel would be joining us at breakfast. If there was a breakfast. Sometimes, and this is the point now, these places wouldn’t deign to start their breakfasts until 7 or sometimes even 8 o’clock. I imagine that they did this so they could avoid serving breakfast (and coffee) until after all the guests had good, thereby either conserving all of their meager resources, or taking them all for themselves. But this was rarely the case, since we asked for little more than hot water we were almost always accommodated. In La Paz, I had thought the bus station hotel’s kitchen was to open at 6. I went downstairs with my thermos at 6:20 or so thinking I’d be able to get some water for the coffee. No one at all was downstairs. The restaurant wasn’t to be opened until 7. I’d have to wait 45 minutes for coffee. No big deal really, but we had to be at the bus station at 7:45, so it meant that we wouldn’t be able to relax and have a nice morning coffee together, which is an essential part of travel, especially for me. At ten to 7 I sent Gina down to see if maybe anyone was downstairs yet, hoping that maybe the porter would take pity on a pretty girl, only asking for hot water and unlock the kitchen door himself. She came back up empty-handed about five minutes later. I packed up my bag, got everything ready to leave and then went downstairs myself. It was now after 7, probably by about ten minutes. Some old crone was just unlocking the door to the kitchen. So dropped the keys as she attempted to do so and grumbled loudly. I could tell I would get no favors from her. The hard part about asking for hot water is that you feel like you are asking for a favor. You aren’t ordering anything. You’re not getting what you’re supposed to and you obviously don’t plan on spending very much money. As a result, you have to defer to the people you are ordering from. You have to wait for them to acknowledge you. So there is always an awkward wait while you stand there holding the thermos, like the proverbial empty cup of sugar. When you are acknowledged, which in the morning is always in a crisp manner, especially because the server notices your deference and therefore assumes that you’ve got some mealy-mouthed favor to ask. The servers always seem far too happy to turn you down. Even offering to pay rarely changes their mind. What is really annoying is that you know that they’ve got to have hot water; even the most bare-bones kitchen has the means of making hot water. It’s got to be the most basic thing that a kitchen can produce. This makes you defiant; you follow the old crone into the kitchen, point to the stove and the tea kettle, asking “no hay gas? No hay agua?” Pointing and frowning. Eventually she gives up and tells you to come back in ten minutes. Ten minutes later and we’re waiting in the lobby with all our bags, still waiting on the crone. Gina’s standing at the door of the kitchen, holding the thermos in the deferential way. How did we get to this point? Are we not guests of the hotel? Are we asking for eggs benedict? Hot water should not be so complicated and drawn-out. When we finally get our water she charges us, a paltry sum, yes, but almost as if to justify her grievance, to demonstrate to the world that we were the ones who put her out, rather than the other way around. After an occasion like this, I am inclined to say that the hotel has failed to meet my incredibly low standards. If such a basic item as hot water (not even coffee, I know enough to have brought my own) is such a struggle to procure in the morning, than maybe you shold consider converting into a flophouse or a brothel, something where you customers will all be deferential and will not ask you for anything more than a bed and something to keep out the rain. We drink the coffee at the bus station. It’s good, but it’s hard to enjoy sitting on a crowded bench with our enormous packs leaving us little room to pass the cup back and forth. The bus that we board afterward is the nicest in Bolivia, and the road is paved and smooth, but stopping for about 45 minutes to wait for extra passengers and then, seemingly as a consequence, to get stuck in traffic outside the city, does nothing to improve my mood. Everything is annoying me, all the other tourists on the bus, the repetitive scenery, the story that I’m reading for the fifth time because I’ve brought nothing else. Copacabana is incredibly touristy, but it is small and quiet. All the tourist activity is confined to one street. No one is attacking us with tour packages as in Uyuni, the hostels are not all on the other side of town as in Rurrenabaque, still, I am annoyed. We check into a room and go out to find some lunch. After some over-priced food and a long nap, my spirits are finally restored, and Gina and I watch an incredible thunderstorm over the lake from our balcony. Or I should say Gina watched the thunderstorm, I was too busy looking at the hostel’s restaurant below, trying to figure out how likely it was that I’d be able to get hot water from them before 7 AM. The relaxed look of the place did not bode well

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Only Shallow

In Bolivia there is tradition of hawking things to bus passengers that is reminiscent of con artists selling snake oil in the old American west. After the bus pulls out of the station, someone stands up and begins to declaim something, either an institution or the general state of Bolivian living. The person talking is standing in the aisle, and because people are constantly getting on and off and moving around on these buses he must keep looking over his shoulder. This gives the appearance of doing something illegal, like the speaker is gearing up to jump out of the bus window if necessary to flee from the local law enforcement that has already run him out of town twice. No one seems to listen to these people, except me. Usually, they are selling some kind of vitamin supplement disguised as a panacea. I appreciate their oratory style. All the classic rhetorical devices can be observed in their speeches, and anyone thinking of running for some kind of public office would do well to come down here and listen to how these speakers attempt to woo the crowd. They constantly speak of ‘our Bolivia’ and when speaking of nutrition they mention absurdities about how people in Europe are paying 20 US dollars per kilo for quinoa, which, by the way, is practically free in Bolivia. If it looked like anyone was paying attention I would have to dispute such ridiculous claims, but there seems to be little reason to interrupt a speaker that no one is listening to and is, otherwise, delivering a very good speech. There is a bit of pathos inherent in the speeches of these traveling salesmen, and I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not. It seems that they are using a rhetorical device when they ask the audience a question, but the reserved nature of Bolivians doesn’t seem to permit them to answer out loud even if they were listening. The result is that the speaker always has to answer his own question. The more questions he asks the pauses get shorter and shorter until even the loud-mouthed American who pays 80 dollars per pound of quinoa can’t even answer anymore. I noticed that on the last bus I was on no one stood up and started talking about ‘our Bolivia’ or the nutritional aspects of some tuber no one outside this area has ever heard of. The traveling salesmen must know to stay off the La Paz-Rurrenabaque bus because 1. They don’t want to risk their lives to try to sell packets of parasite expellant at 8 Bolivianos a piece and 2. Because no one would listen to them, everyone is far too busy praying. On the other hand, I think a seller of any religious items would do very well on this bus. If, say, there was a priest who was corrupt enough to sell last rites or renew the practice of selling indulgences, I think nearly everyone on board would be hanging on every word of his pitch, already kneading their money in their pockets as the bus careens over yet another hairpin turn 100s of feet straight above the river below. Before we took the bus to Rurrenabaque we had taken a bicycle tour of the death road to Cororico. On a bike, much narrower than a passenger bus, I was scarcely nervous at all. I remarked to Gina how I could believe that driving over such a road was ‘deadly’, especially as it was entirely one lane and permitted two-way traffic. But, riding a bike on such a road provided lots of room and left one firmly in control of one’s own destiny. For a joke, I had sent home postcards of the death road in its heyday depicting two trucks meeting head on, both of them about a mile up in the air with nowhere to back up to. I had no idea that I was soon to be in a number of such situations. I had no idea. The bus is one of those one that looks like a British Double Decker, but has no seats underneath, the only one who sits down near the ground is the driver and maybe some kind of bus co-pilot, but I have no idea. Everyone else is about ten feet up in the air. This seems to make the ride a little smoother, especially when you’re on a bus that has nothing left of its original shocks. It also makes the ride just that much more precipitous and harrowing when you’re constantly clinging to the edge of a mountain range. Not only because you’re higher up, but because the distance between you and the ground tends to be skewed a little by this height. Often when you look down you can’t see the tire on the road. You can’t see the road. There is nothing under your window but air, clouds and, much further down, some very jagged looking rocks. Even this would become acceptable if the bus weren’t constantly pitching in and out against the cliff face on the other side of the road. To one side it’s a sheer drop, to the other a sheer wall and the road is nothing but obtuse and acute angles going in and out. The road is also not even dirt; it’s been ground down by so many vehicles over the years that its desiccated into a bed of dust. You’re riding in a bed of dust that goes on for miles and miles and the driver is honking and passing other large buses and trucks like he’s late for his own wedding. About every mile or so you meet another bus tearing around a corner moving at the same breakneck speed as your own. Both slam on their brakes just in time to avoid a disastrous collision and then begin the arduous process of trying to force the other to back up to the last space where there was enough room for both buses to precariously slide by each other. Your bus frequently loses these staring matches between drivers and when you start backing up you can already feel all that nothingness looming up underneath you. This is almost always how the traffic falls from the road. Backing up. A long passenger bus, with broken mirrors and the driver even wants to back up as if he is in a hurry. After a few seconds you hear ‘whoa’s and ‘para’s. It’s a good thing that some of the other passengers decided to look and not just leave it to chance like you did because the driver almost backed right out over the cliff. Just like that you would’ve been falling. You would’ve felt the back tires drop and then it only would’ve been a matter of seconds before gravity pulled the entire bus down into the abyss. You can imagine the pandemonium it would caused inside the bus as everyone desperately forced themselves toward the windows on the right side. You never would’ve made it since you’re on the left side, the one that would already be hanging off the edge. No use jumping out that window unless you want to expedite the process of falling to your death. This goes on for hours. You try not to pay attention, but the situation is probably the first ever in your life in which you are constantly subjected to the extremely likely possibility of your death. Looking at the gorge below you can’t reason it away. If you fall you will die. It’s so certain. And every few seconds you confront the possibility of falling: a large bump that makes the bus hop that much closer to the edge, the dust obscuring the driver’s vision, the sickening wheeze of the pneumatic brakes when he tries to pass and very suddenly runs out of road. You cannot read; You cannot close your eyes. You cannot even summon any regrets. There is only you and this road and each bump, each stop that brings your heart hammering past your throat into your face, behind your eyes. After twenty grueling hours you manage to make it to your destination. You try not to think about how you’ll be getting back, but in the quiet moments, between the searches for something to eat, and the jungle expeditions, in the distance between the pointer finger of the guide and the toucan crouching in a tree there it is: your return. From Rurrenabaque, Bolivia there is no road that crosses into Peru where you have a flight in ten days back to the gracious comforts of your home country. You have to return to La Paz to get back. The only way to do this is to fly (flights are booked for the next week, at least) or to take the incredibly circuitous route to Trinidad (10 hours), Santa Cruz (18), Cochabamba (10 more and back to La Paz (at least 8) which would cost you four times as much time and money, assuming that you never even stopped in any of these places and were able to catch a connecting bus immediately in each of them (no way). The bus station in Rurrenabaque is small, most of the locals have the good sense not to go anywhere. There are hardly even any cars in the town, only motorcycles. You get the sense that they all think of cars and buses and being the things that fall off mountains no matter where they may happen to be. There’s a kid at the ticket counter, which is a table inside a flyblown room. In front of him there is a seating chart for a bus. ‘La Paz?” He asks. “Yeah, sure, La Paz.” Outside, Gina is not happy. A few minutes ago everything was fine. There was no other way. Let’s just get the tickets and then we’ll go get a drink. No problem, people do it every day. But the bus station is ominously empty and seems to be run by a ten year-old. I put the tickets into my wallet and we start back down the street, but the sudden crash of resurgent fear keeps us from going very far. It’s hard to walk my mind is suddenly so hung up. It screams ‘go back! Exchange the tickets!’ Death!’ But there is nothing to exchange the tickets for. I’ve noticed an unprecedented number of expats living in Rurrenabaque, a small town at the edge of the jungle of about 15,000. Is it possible that they’re all waiting to build up the courage to go back? Courage that never comes completely, like trying to swallow a pill that’s just a little too large? It seems about to pass and then begins to break down into acidulous paste causing you to retch it out slow close to the goal? We stop for a tamarind juice on the corner and take our glasses to the dusty curb. Gina says she has an anxious feeling, says that it rose sharply the second I bought the tickets. Her dreams have come true before. She dreamt the end of The Mill on the Floss
and has déjà vu all the time. The tickets feel like DOA toe cards in my wallet, my back pocket already sliding into a lonely grave. I can’t comfort her. I’m too shaken myself. I wish she wouldn’t have told me. I’d prefer to just suddenly start falling, pretend nothing is going to happen until the last minute and then in a few seconds it would be over anyway. At least we tried. The tamarind is gone. We go back to the hostel. I ask the proprietress about the road. ‘No problem,’ she says. ‘I do it all the time.’ I am almost relived until she mentions a bus company. ‘Just make sure you get you tickets with them. The other ones are all a little fly-by-night.’ The tickets I’ve bought are not from the company she mentioned. I tell Gina about the old woman’s words of advice. I don’t tell her about the company. I figure it really can’t matter that much anyway. We go out to get drinks. A gin and tonic that I drink too fast and a daiquiri I can’t finish. The walk back, I feel faint. It’s about 8:30 and I just want to go to bed. Gina seems better and makes me get up and brush my teeth. I thought it was seven, but it’s actualy only six. The sun comes up early in tropical places. It’s already hot outside. The coffee is an empty ritual. Maybe the last cup I’ll ever have, but I can hardly taste it. We pack and look at the clock. Go shopping and look and the clock. Come back to the hostel and look at the clock. Nine. Good enough. Let’s go. We’re at the bus station an hour early. While we’re waiting, I remember another horrible bus ride and decide to go out and buy a half pint of something strong. It’s the only succor, the only protection I can offer myself and it distracts me for about ten minutes. I come back and there’s still an hour. We wait half an hour more and there’s still an hour. A couple that was trying to fly out appear at the bus station. There are no flights. They’ve decided to take the bus as well. The more the merrier. We wait. The sun is bright and the station is still. There is only motorcycle traffic swarming around the town. I smoke. I ask the kid when the bus is coming now. I smoke again. The shadows disappear. The man from the couple comes over. The bus is an hour late. He’s got a van taxi if we want it. Says it’ll go straight to La Paz. No stops. Should only take about ten hours. Half the time. Twice the price of course, but there’s still no bus. I don’t want to tempt fate by switching transport. I balk. ‘How much again?’ I ask. ‘And the price?’ But I’m sick of waiting. The van seems slightly safer. On the way up we didn’t see any buses down on the gorge, but we saw cars. Smashed. Nothing left. No reason for emergency recoveries. Still, the chances seem better in a van. Two other travelers want to know if there’s room. The more the merrier. The van looks alright. The driver is taciturn, but it seems like that might be the hallmark of a good driver. No need for words, for assurance. Just drive. The bags are in, there’s a little bit of room in the back and we’re driving out of town, bouncing and clunking over a road that is not a road. The window got stuck and dust is choking out the light. It’s heavy in my beard, in my eyebrows. My fingers feel trapped in their fingertips, but I am feeling relieved. The taxi seems like a good idea. We’ve still got a ways to go before the dangerous part, but we’re not as wide, or as top-heavy as the bus. We’ll be OK. We’ll make it. I manage to read through the bumps for a while. There is one open seat and a young girl gets in with her baby. A baby. I always feel safer when I see them in dangerous situations. God would want to spare the sinless baby. I blather to the woman about village life for a while. It takes my attention of the dangerous parts of the road that are cropping in from the darkness and the dust: vast spaces of night that rear up and the retreat. There’s a rock slide in front of us. We stop and wait for it to slow to a dusty trickle. There is silence and then we’re back in gear flying over the spot where just a few seconds ago rocks the size of volleyballs were raining down over the road and off the edge, into the darkness. A town. A stop, just before the worst stretch of the road. We take twenty minutes. The driver seems tired. He told us eight hours when we left at 11 am. It’s now 7 pm and before the village girl got off with her baby she told me we had at least 5 hours left before La Paz. She didn’t need to tell me because I remembered them from before. Five hours of road blowing out into the sky, of tire tracks millimeters away from nothing. This was still before us. The driver goes off to rest. Someone checks the tires. They’re totally bald. We laugh nervously and for some reason the thought crosses my mind that if I die on the road I’m going to have to repeat this miserable day over and over again. All the anxiety, the tamarind, the lack of food, the cardboard Bolivian cigarettes and Gina’s hands rigid at her sides, balled into fists for the last hour. I didn’t mean to bring us up here, but there was no way back. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We picked up a new passenger, a gregarious young man, very friendly and he distracts me from the road. ‘Used to be nothing but a two track the whole way! When cars met, they would wait sometimes half an hour before one of them would break and try to back up kilometers to the last turn around. They usually never made it, boom! Right off the edge. It’s much wider now.’ I felt better. I hoped hearing the sounds of Juan Carlos and I chat easily was soothing Gina a little. We were having an adventure. Nothing more. I don’t look at the road. From the back of the van I can’t see anything anyway. There’s nothing but dust in front of the headlights. It was the dust about an hour ago, that had so obscured our path that we almost ran right into a pile of sand. We would’ve run into it if the front passenger hadn’t noticed it. So much for our quite driver. I talked to Juan and tried not to think about how the dust could just as easily obscure our progress right out into the night sky. No sudden breaking this time because there wouldn’t be a big obvious pile in front of us, just the sudden swoon and the headlights screaming down into all that darkness, and we would fall like a swollen and uncertain firefly. It would be beautiful to the other drivers in a way against all that darkness. We’re stopped now. Stopped behind a line of cars. There’s shouting down the road. ‘Did someone go off?’ There’s not enough room for two trucks to pass each other and a puzzle is solved one car at a time. A bus backs up, a car goes forward. A truck stops, the driver shakes his head, suddenly his cab is surrounded by men screaming at him to move; he’s got room. Just move! You feel for him. His tire, also treadless, is crumbling the little bit of road beneath it. It takes an hour and a half before we get through and even after we do we leave a line of traffic that snakes way back along the road behind. It’s been about 3 and a half hours now. There can’t be that much more of the dangerous stretch of road left. After Cororico, it get better, paved, wide, like an American highway going through the mountains. I begin to nod off. I try to keep talking to Juan, but my Spanish has been reduced to ‘hmmm’ and ‘ah mira!’ We seem to be nearly out of the worst part. I’m not over confident. The driver has been on the road now for about twelve hours. I know he’s tired, but there’s nothing I can do. Another rock slide wakes me. Actually, the skid of the breaks on the dust wake me but it’s the rock slide that’s caused them. There are two huge boulders in the middle of a part of the road that’s barely wide enough for a single car to go through. I hear someone say ‘tomorrow’ and I fall asleep. I no longer care that we’re never going to get off this road. It’s toyed with me for too long and no I’m going to turn my back on it. I’m awake again and the driver is trying to back up. It’s looks like they’ve cleared enough of the rock to go through, but for some reason he doesn’t want to. The big boulder is still in the way , but the littler one is gone. Pushed off the edge, now hundreds of feet beneath us. Juan tells me that in the villages up stream, before the road was widened, corpses used to float by on a regular basis. The rock is down where the corpses used to be, or, where we saw the smashed car on the way here, still are. The driver keeps backing up. The men are all around the car now telling him to go forward. Telling him there’s room. They all look very angry. They want to get off the road and he’s blocking all the traffic. It’s about 3 AM by the clock in the van. He pauses, shifts and begins driving forward, fast, too fast. Suddenly, everyone in the car is screaming ‘no, por dios!, slow, SLOW!’ The boulder is right next to us it’s too dark to see anything else and then we are driving ahead. Still on the road. I don’t fall back asleep, but kind of grey out for a while. We are pst the bad part, on the paved part, although the pavement breaks up every 1,000 feet or so. I wake up and Gina is saying that the driver is obviously very tired. We are in the wrong lane. The van is weaving. It’s almost five in the morning and we left at 11. To come all this way and die now in a head-on collision. The music is on and the driver’s got his window open. There’s nothing that can be done. There’s no place to stop and sleep and in a moment I am asleep again. I wake up to the dark outskirts of La Paz, too tired to be overjoyed, but peaceful, serene. We’re not quite back to the city yet when we pull off to a side road and stop. ‘What’s happening? One of the passengers without any Spanish asks. I explain the exchange I’ve just heard between the Argentine passenger in the front and the driver. ‘We’re stopping here, he says. We told him we wanted to go to the terminal but he says we’re stopping here. The guy up front says he’s not going to pay if he doesn’t take us to the terminal.’ The driver sits in his seat obviously exhausted. The Argentine tells him he’s getting out, he and his wife. They aren’t paying anything if they’re to be dropped off here. And they don’t. Within a matter of seconds, they’ve taken their bags out of the trunk and jumped in a cab. We’re alone. There’s no one around. Gina’s bag has fallen in the street in the argument. I tell the girls what just happened, even though I assume it’s obvious. I don’t want to leave the poor guy without paying. He’s just worked 19 hours straight, but I’d also like to get to the terminal. I go out the truck and begin to shoulder my bag. The driver seems almost indifferent. Juan keeps saying ‘por favor.’ And he agrees. We’re back in driving to the terminal. It takes about five minutes to get there. Nothing at all considering how far we’ve come. At the terminal, I pay him and thank him. Juan writes down a list of Bolivian fruits I need to try and Gina and I, completely punch drunk, drift through the darkened terminal looking for some bad coffee.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Road to the Road of Death

We’re in the office of one of the thousands of agencies offering bike tours of El Camino del Muerte. The guide has warned us to accept no shabby agencies, but to go for the one that offers English-speaking guides trained in rope rescue with top-of-the-line, well-maintained American bikes. We went to an agency like that, the price they were asking was twice was all the other agencies wanted. The other agencies may have not had English-speaking guides, but what’s so hard to understand about, lento, izquierda, para and derecha? I didn’t expect that the guides would need to tell us more than that. We were only biking down a road; yeah, It was a road that was, in some places, little more than a cliff hanging on to the side of a mountain, trellised hundreds of meters above the jungle floor, with no rail of any kind and lots of irregular-sized rocks as pavement-rocks that would cause your tires to jump in different directions or even to cause your bike to topple over, but still, it was just a road. Considering what paying half-price would meant later on in the trip, we decided to do it. The lady at the agency seemed nice enough and the bike she showed us looked top-of-the-line. It seemed to me that anyone with as much experience riding bikes as Gina or I would be ok, as long as the brakes worked OK. The next morning, when we set out, I wasn’t so sure. The entire trip has been really mellow. Since we left Argentina, we haven’t had a night pass in which we’ve been out later than 11 o’clock. Starting a routine of getting up early every day, has helped. Since the beginning I’ve been getting up at six am every morning. Usually, by 11, or sometimes even ten, I’m ready for bed. The night before we were to ride bike down the death road was, predictably, the one exception to this. After we had bought our tickets, it was still early in the evening, and not having much else to do in the capital city of La Paz, we thought that we’d check out a nearby recommended bar. We had a drink there, but it was a little pricey, so we left. On the way back to the hostel, we passed another bar that looked a little more local and decided to pop in and have a quick beer before going back. We did and then remembered that we should buy some food to take with us. On the way back from the grocery store we drank the cans of beers that we had bought and suddenly remembered that our hostel provided one free beer each evening. We drank that one too, for a little night cap and then began talking to some Australians and decided to have a beer with them. This all ends with me lying awake in bed at about 4 in the morning riddled with anxiety, what the hell were we thinking? We had to leave at 7:30 for the world’s most dangerous road, way up in the mountains, and there was no way I was going to be in top form or even capable enough to go racing down cliff-hugging mountain roads. At six, still over whelmed by these uncertainties, I got up and went downstairs to make coffee. Outside, I noticed there was a van with bikes on the top of it. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself, ‘one of these groups starts off really early.’ Just as I had gone in to start the hot water, a man came in and said ‘estoy buscando por Jonny y Gina.’ WHAT! I dashed out of the kitchen and tried to fumble my way through an explanation. We were told 7:30. Gina isn’t even awake yet. Our stuff is still all over the road and, my god, man, can’t you see how haggard I look? I need coffee. I need an hour to get ready. I need to get my head back on before heading out with you and your suicidal crew. He gave me 5 minutes. About twenty minutes later, we’re on top of a mountain putting on gear, all of which looks like something out of Mad Max. The knee pads are shredded. The elbow pads are cracked and there are bits of rocks embedded in them. The helmets actually seem to have some kind of carbon scoring on them, as if they have been exposed to metal and extreme heat at the same time. In short, ever piece of equipment that we are now putting on looks like it came off some crushed and broken body at the bottom of a landslide. The bikes are not much better. The one that we had been shown in the office, was obviously, a display model. The ones we were now apprehensively looking over, looked like zombie versions of the same bike. Different parts were joined into the original design at obtuse angles. Parts that didn’t fit were broken to be made to fit. Gear cables wrapped in ways I have never seen before, brake handles that were totally different makes and therefore, sat on the handle bars in complete opposition to each other, one on the top the other sort of out in the front. The bodies of the bikes themselves had been subjected to the same vicious scoring, as if they had been drug behind us the entire trip up the mountain, instead of sitting on the rack above the van. Somehow, I suddenly felt surprising optimistic. I may have just been trying to put on a brave face for Gina, who was still upset about having been woken at six in the morning to me running in the room and yelling. ‘Oh, shit, we’re screwed! There’re here! Get up! They’re here already!’ Since then, El Camino del Muerte, was nothing but a stupid novelty for her, sleep or at least rest, was the only thing she cared about, and all this gearing up with battered and broken pads and looking over shotty, worn-out bikes was not helping. ‘Buen dia, amigos!’ the guide begins and proceeds to say a bunch of things in a rapid Spanish that I can barely understand. He says, ‘por las dudas’ and ‘si no quieres morir’ a bunch but the rest goes over my head. The first part doesn’t look too bad. We’re up in the mountains, but it’s paved and there are shoulders and guard rails. We begin and the ride is exhilarating. Even with the gear in the lowest setting, it is impossible to pedal because we are coasting so fast, coasting, down the mountain highway, through cloud banks and around corners that jut out over the misty abyss below. It’s like riding a bike in the sky. There’s a slight chill, but we are dressed warm enough and no effort at all is required. Just hold on and brake. It’s hard to keep your attention on the road because the scenery is so ethereal and a couple of times, I look back down to see myself heading toward the edge and quickly correct my course. The scenery gradually grows greener. The bare rocks begin to be swarmed by moss and then a panoply of undergrowth begins to swell out and drift up the mountains in fuzzy green currents. The smell changes, the dust is soaked with fog and oxygen that all the plants are producing. The air is heady, suddenly there is almost too much of it after a week in the oxygen-deprived heights of southern Bolivia. We come around a corner and find that everyone has stopped. It’s time for a short break, before we continue on to the actual death road. The guide offers everyone a coke. ‘Coke!?’ at seven in the morning, what’s wrong with these people. He asks me if I want a coke and I tell him I’d much prefer even the worst instant coffee if it’s available somewhere. In a minute he comes back with exactly that. It’s too light to be coffee. It’s too terrible to be anything else; it’s hot and it’s earth-colored so I’m happy. I eat a few generous spoonfulls of peanut butter to try to give myself something to burn for the day and I drink the coffee to help it down my paradoxically dry and filmy throat. The drive to the death road is uphill. Most of the road that we are continuing up looks like that which we earlier came down. It is nothing like a death road, it could be a highway in Colorado. There’s a turn a head that looks like some old hermit’s private driveway. The green wraps around us. The paved road gives way to a slurry of rock and mud that narrows to a desperate-looking two track. Above it, the mountain roars up into the clouds, below, it breaks off into nothingness. From where we stop I can see the road snaking all the way across the mountain. It goes on for mile after unguarded mile, all of it nearly toppling into the green emptiness below. To contemplate even having to go down this road for a few minutes is scary. It’s something that you’d hold your breath to do. Considering that we are going to spend the whole morning going down it, through the mud and the rock, around sharp turns on these Frankenstein bikes is almost too much to contemplate. It’s something that’s going to have to be done one pedal at a time. There’s brief safety lecture, very little of which I understand. I keep looking at Gina, hoping my look conveys, 1. Are you OK to do this? and 2. Am I OK to do this? She looks back at me in the same way and I get no reassurance before we are on our bikes and desperately squeezing our loose and poorly positioned brake handles bouncing treacherously over gobs of mud and human head-sized rocks. We slip and gasp and clutch our way past, wet, mossy outcroppings, giant ferns, waterfalls in which the water has fallen so far that it has broken down into a mist, into little clouds that drift downward lie autumn leaves. Every couple of hundred feet there is a memorial of some kind: a copper cross covered with verdigris, mildewed plastic flowers or a lichen-eaten stone cross, all of them with names and dates, placed on the part of the road that they last touched before going over. It was all dizzying, but eventually, the green swam up around us in such a cooling and leathian way, like a fatal overdose, that we broke loose from our fear, or just accepted the fact that everyone dies sometime and that if it were to happen to us now, at least it would happen in a beautiful and serene place. Riding on, the sun broke out through the sweltering clouds and the evergreen around us became a wild jungle light. Birds that had songs that sounded like rocks skittering across a frozen pond shot above us, heedless of the height. Bananas hung down in emerald green bunches between explosions of wet, surf-board-sized leaves. Gina and I are now riding past each other to talk. The stupor of the early morning is gone. The beauty competes steadily with any remaining fear. You never forget how high you are and how close to the edge, but after a while you begin to feel like you know the road and respect it enough to not be another of its casualties. We bank and brake and bounce and the green and blue flies by in torrents, in silhouette waves and we are down; we are at the bottom. Not able to believe that it is over and already considering if we have enough money to do it again. ************ There is something that sounds like a large drop of water hitting an empty wooden bucket. You hear this sound in quick succession, about three times, before it turns into a cranking whistle and then levels out to the sound that mourning doves make on hot summer afternoons. The birds making this sound live in the tree in front of our cabin. They are black with bright yellow tail feathers and beak and their nests are woven and hang from the branches. If I were to try to look them up I would probably start with something like ‘hanging nest bird-Bolivia.’ Then I would continue my search to include, ‘screeching vulture-fowl, colorful neck, Bolivia,’ and ‘green moth,’ firefly beetle,’ ‘giant pool spider,’ ‘largest snail in the world: shell like a baseball, mollusk part like a cow tongue,’ and finally glassy-eyed monkey with incredibly long fingers.’ After all of these animals I would have to write Bolivia, or northern Bolivia, because that’s where I’ve seen them all and I can only assume that such jungle animals are indigenous to this place, well, except the birds, I guess, but that snail couldn’t have been going anywhere. After we had finished with the death ride, we got dropped off at the bus stop for Cororico, the place that I think I had been the most excited about visiting since leaving Buenos Aires. Coroico, is a small town on top of a misty green mountain where they grew everything from coffee to coca leaves. I looked forward to visiting it after ungainly making my way through the saltiest, driest and dustiest places of South America. I eagerly anticipated bathing my tired and dry eyes in jungle humidity and diversion. The place, largely due to our lodgings, has not been at all disappointing. First of all, without even going for a trek through the surrounding area we have seen all the animals mentioned above and a few more. The monkey was waiting for us on the road in. The mini bus driver, who had been fairly laconic most of the ride, suddenly turned to us and made a little whistling noise. I looked up to see this ‘mono’ sitting on the side of the road, regarding us suspiciously, but not without some curiosity. He would look about himself as if he’d misplaced something nearby and then suddenly dart his glance back up to the van. It was the first time I’d seen a monkey in the wild and I was pretty much bouncing up and down in my seat. We arrived in the town after taking about forty looping switchbacks up the plantain-leafy mountain. From the road you could only see a profusion of greens, the type of endless varying green that I imagine would begin to drive someone lost in the jungle insane with its all-encompassing beauty after a while. When the green was interrupted it was by vistas, pauses that opened out to the cloud valley straight down the face of the mountain. The town, once we arrived, was slightly colonial-looking. I mean the building façades were high and flat and they crowded a narrow cobblestone street. There were few cars and women drifted up and down the lanes carrying loads wrapped in bright tapestries. From the back, the only human detail that could be made out was their long braids, so encumbered by their loads and garments as they were. Quaint as the town was, I was glad to leave it. After traveling for about two weeks, I wanted to get away from everything for a day or two. Since we don’t have a tent we took up residence in a hostel that was about a twenty minute walk up the mountain from the town. I say hostel because that’s what the place calls itself, but it is absolutely nothing like any hostel I’ve ever seen. Our room is a cabin that sits up on top of the hill. The shower and bathroom are outside, near the fire pit. The area is demarcated by ornamental gardens, coffee shrubs and plantain trees. There is also a little wooden balcony that overlooks the valley and the other green mountains of the area. Since we have arrived here, we have done nothing at all except remark to each other on the beauty of the place, often in the limited vocabulary of ‘wow; look at that; shhh, look’ and in the case of the giant snail: ‘holy shit!’ If I had more money, I would stay here at least three more days. As I write that, I cannot tell if I mean it as a tribute to the place or an indication that I am getting older and learning how to relax. In all my travels, I have always been ready to move on after a few days in even the most beautiful places. Perhaps this is because most of them were cities, or towns and the attraction was man-made, startling at first as the Venetian canals or the madrassas of Samarkand, but becoming less remarkable almost as soon as you realize what they are. There is the moment of realization where you look upon the bricks and shattered columns of global antiquity and reel with the heady image of these near-eternal things that the Mongol hoards, the Visigoths or the Incas once looked upon, but continue to look upon these things for days and they shed their mystery and assume the appearance of old bricks. The life in the jungle is more of a continuum: the sun, the mists, the rain, the hunt, the migration, the back and forth trail of leaf cutter ants, the bloom and the return to the nest in the evening. I am as awed in each moment that I am here as I was when I first arrived because what I am watching is renewal rather than petrifaction.