Monday, December 31, 2012
“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
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Monday, December 10, 2012
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 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
Thursday, November 8, 2012
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
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
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
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.