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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Salted Sleep

We waited around for about two hours before there was to be a bus for Colchani, which is the closest village to the salt flats. I kept thinking to myself that they had all the tour companies for a reason, that to get out to the famous Salar Uyuni alone was not possible. Still, we waited on the bus, as from Google maps, it looked as though the salt flats really did abut the village. From the bus windows, we can see the luminescence of the white salt. Along the horizon there was a diffuse glow, like when you see a photo taken from space of Earth while the sun is behind it. The brown earth turned to khaki and to a thin line of white that mixed with the blue of the sky; the reflecting qualities of the white made it difficult to tell where the horizon ended and the sky began. We hadn’t yet reached Colchani and the bus rambled further along the dirt road. We got off in a small village that had railroad tracks and not much else. Somewhat leery, because we couldn’t tell how far away the Salar was, we began to walk toward the horizon’s luminescence. We were heartened when we past some touristy stands selling woven blankets souvenir hats and, God, ‘llama sutra’ t-shirts. I threatened to buy Gina one of the abominations. At the stands we were among a large group of tourists, looking at them all we realized that we had forgotten one (probably) very important requirement for the Salar: sunglasses. “Oh, shit,” I thought. “Those things are going to cost a fortune here, if they even have any.” We looked around a few places and found a display of sunglasses that didn’t look totally disposable. They weren’t too expensive, and since Gina didn’t have any anyway, and the ones I own are incredible crooked, we bought them and set out past the waiting tourist 4x4s on foot. It was a great feeling to visit the Salar unaccompanied because it’s something that should be played on. I could see how it brought out this spirit in everyone who came to it. The glowing emptiness coaxes out a childish run and jump and prod response. As the ground under our feet gave way to salt trails, cracks and crispy filigreed pockets of dust and salt we began to jump and shout and say absurd things that made us laugh even more. Perhaps it was the feeling of being in such a remote and desolate place, but with the consolation that you had a way back home. It may have also been that the otherworldly landscape evokes a certain response because it is altogether unfamiliar. If you think about it, there is a certain decorum for places like cathedral forests, and vast impressive mountains. A white desert starts at you like an impressive thing, but somehow quickly becomes an absurd thing, perhaps because it is such a harsh environment that one becomes irreverent. With due irreverence, we bounded along the salt flats, jumping on piles of salt, kicking up buckled plates of dried salt, eating salt, poking salt sludge and flinging it at each other and continually saying ‘wow’ to every tiny variation we came across. At the ‘Ojos del Salar’ (which were a collection of a few large thermal pools in the Salar) we dug our arms elbow deep down into bubbling red pools. The water was warm, but not warm enough to bathe in, especially with the wind that was whipping around out there. As soon as you took your arm out of the jasper-red water, it got very cold. The solution was to wipe it repeatedly on my pants and end up totally encrusted in dried salt. This led to complete disregard to preserve any of my clothing and soon I was completely covered in salt. We had been out on the Salar for a while and were wondering whether we should go back to the village and try to figure out where to get on the bus, or if we should walk just a little further. Our question was answered for us when we saw what looked like a bus gradually growing on the horizon. It was hard to be sure, the Salar does weird things to perspective. We had earlier been following a 4x4 that had been moving away from us, thinking that it was some kind of attraction. We ran over to where we though the bus would intersect our path. There were no clearly demarcated roads on the Salar, cars just drove across it in all directions like a vast, white parking lot. “This is like something out of an acid trip,” Gina said as the bus slows down to let us on. “Or like the end of a movie,” I added. Where previously, there had been nothing, this bus had suddenly materialized in front of us and now stood waiting with open doors, nothing around but white. In this environment, the bus seemed more like a conduit or a plot device than an actual tangible thing. We stood on a blank white page waiting for the author to make a decision, lacking inspiration a writes ‘ a bus appears’ and that’s all we’ve got: white emptiness and this bus. We bought tickets of Oruro when we got back into town. The buses didn’t leave until 8 pm and now that we had seen the Salar, there didn’t seem to be any reason to stay in Uyuni for another 24 hours. We had a nice room, we could’ve just stayed and relaxed, but we had become accustomed to the perpetual motion of travel and longed for another rocky bus ride that would leave the inside of our nostrils raw, our lips chapped and our bodies coated with a fine, undefinable film. 8 O’clock in the evening seemed like a good time to leave. We had seen a lot of the area from a walk in the morning and we were tired out from our trip to the Salar. We had time to relax a little and then go over to the bus station. It seemed possible that we might even sleep. To better our chances, I bought a couple cans of beer for us to drink at the bus station. Bus stations are naturally overwhelming places. It helps if you can have something that shows your disregard for them. Sitting on your pack, holding a can of beer, the running people, the ticket sellers shouting over each other and all the buses jockeying for position mean nothing. Your bus leaves at eight. There’s no reason to get up until then. We had a about a can and a half of beer a piece, not much, but enough to make a bathroomless bus ride hell. At about 5 minutes to 8 we ran to the public bathroom to empty our bladders. When we got on the bus, I thought we had beaten the whole thing. Yeah, we were going to have an uncomfortable night bus ride, that was probably going to dump us off at our destination at some ungodly hour in the morning, but we were relaxed and intrepid; we weren’t concerned with such things. Once on the bus, we put our headphones on in the dark, smiled to each other and watched the blur of stars outside the window. The ride was supposed to be very cold so we had layered up before leaving. It wasn’t, however, and soon we were getting warm. I left my sweaters on in hopes that somehow the discomfort of being hot would distract me from having to pee so bad. We hadn’t been on the road more than twenty minutes when I had begun to feel the disconcerting tug of my bladder. The last bus we had been on had stopped once in the middle of a six-hour journey and it seemed less than fain to even do that. We rocked and bounced along in the suffocating heat and darkness, so much different from the bright and cool salt flats of that afternoon. I clenched my teeth, I crossed my legs, I tried to lose myself in the music, but it wasn’t long before the pull became a tug and then clenched into an actual fist of pain right below the left side of my ribcage. The fist bounced and broke with every bump in the road. I felt short of breath, sweat seemed to cascade down my forehead. I pulled my hat off and kneaded it between my hands. I gasped. And then the bus stopped. Not a rolling stop, but an actual hard stop. The lights came on. In my desperation, I stood up, hopeful. The aisle was full of sleeping children and a few sitting adults. I had no way to get off or get to the driver there was no room even if all the kids had stood up they would have to get off the bus to allow me to pass though. Dejected, I sat back down, waited for the lights to go back down and took out my thermos. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined, nor as awkward even while sitting next to a complete stranger. I hadn’t wanted to do it, because I knew that Gina probably had to pee as well, even when she reassured me that she didn’t, but it got to a point where it felt like something was going to break. We stopped about an hour later and I went again, just to be sure. The bus pulled into Oruro at exactly three am, which is probably the worst time to arrive anywhere, but especially a place you know nothing about. I had set up a meeting with a couchsurfer there and hadn’t planned on getting a room at all, but when we found ourselves in dirty bus station where dogs slunk through the open door and fought with each other, I decided that we would go out and find a room regardless. I’ve slept in bus stations before, but I didn’t want to sleep here alongside the cavorting dogs. We shouldered our packs and went out in search of a hotel. In the parking lot, I stopped to ask an attendant where a certain street. He began to tell me and then asked if I planned on going there now. ‘Well, yeah, I’m going to get a room,’ I told him. He shook his head, ‘you don’t want to go out there now, there’s nothing but thieves out there. You’d better go back into the bus station and wait until dawn, then go and get yourself a room.’ It seemed reasonable advice, but by dawn I would have no reason to get a room since we had someone in town to stay with and the bus station was full of dogs and no benches, not even a chair to sit on. I thought about leaving the pack with Gina and going out alone to see what I could find, but I was too tired for such heroism and soon found myself spreading out my sleeping bag on the bus station floor, amidst the yelping and growling dogs. I wasn’t asleep, but I wasn’t awake either. When you try to sleep outside without ample equipment, you enter into a strange sort of twilight sleep: aware, but foggy. You can feel your hip grinding against the cold tile floor and the drool running down your cheek, but you cease to care after a while and abandon yourself to the idea that you’re going to have to lay here for hours, turning back and forth. I was in the middle of accepting this when a woman was suddenly above us telling us to get up, she needed to get into her store, the door of which we were laying in front of. Oh, it must already be morning. We got up and began to pack up the bag, but something seemed wrong, outside, it was still dark and there were still people sleeping all over. I looked at the phone to see what time it was. 4:40. We walked over to another part of the bus station, lay down on the cold tile and pulled the sleeping bag over our heads, trying to shut out even the idea of what we were doing. Around six we could no longer ignore the roar that was gradually breaking over us. The bus ticket sellers had become much more strident. “Potosi, Potoseeeeee,” they yelled. “Cochabama, Cochabama, Cooooochabaaaaama,” they shouted. I peeked out from under the sleeping bag, there were feet all around us, not sleeping feet, standing feet, waiting feet. It was time to get up. My only consolation, was that the morning sun would be much warmer than the tile floor had been. We pack up the sleeping bag, shouldered our packs and walked about a block away before stopping. We had nothing to do and nowhere to go. Even if we wanted to go somewhere, we had our massive packs. I needed to contact the couchsurfing host, but I knew that it would be some time before the internet cafes opened. I badly needed a cup of coffee. We sat there for a while, trying to decide what to do. My eyes had sand in them, my clothes, salty from the day before, were practically stuck to me and my mouth was nearly gummed shut. It was great. The night, we made dinner together with our couchsurfing host, Juan Carlos and some other couchsurfers from France. The French couple were travelling around South America promoting different kinds of games, as well as learning about them, but they weren’t as hippy as that sounds and we had a great time trying out their games and eating quinoa and trying to speak Spanish to each other. It was my first Couchsurfing experience in which everyone wasn’t speaking English and by the end of the night I was full and incredibly thankful to have a bed again. As I lie down, I could still hear the dogs and the bus ticket sellers in my head. “Potosi, Potoseeee!”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Flor De Cohete

We left Tilcara unsure if we would go to La Quiaca to spend the night or the nearby village of Yavi. We’d read that Yavi was an interesting place and as it was only about 20 km outside of La Quiaca we thought maybe it would be the more interesting choice for the last place to properly visit in Argentina. I still have a hard time reconciling myself to the extreme differences of the far north of Argentina to anything else I had seen in the country. From Cordoba to Iguazu to Mendoza, Argentina was a continuum to me; the differences were subtle. I had seen the influence of a greater Andean culture pervading in Salta and Jujuy but I hadn’t stayed long enough in either of these places to understand that surely north of them the influence would become stronger and certainly more tangible. I remember seeing a Bolivian-looking woman in Jujuy and kioscos selling coca and bica but that was it; I rated those slight changes on par with the fact that the empanadas were slightly different; it really didn’t make much of an impression on me. When Gina and I were just a few km north of Jujuy we came into a different country, a liminal world that existed between Argentina and Bolivia. The faces were no longer European, mouths bulged with coca leaves and the landscape became harsh and beautiful in a way that I hadn’t seen before in Argentina, even on the Chilean border over the Andes. I no longer knew what to call people. ‘Vos’ now seemed absurd. I tried ‘ustead’ but it still seemed too cumbersome, especially when talking to the younger people. I ended up just keeping my verbs in the third person and not really calling anyone anything. Signs of Argentine culture still shown through. Quilmes beer is still available, although it seemed that Norte and Salta were more popular and the restaurants still provided that little basket of tasteless white bread. There were even some portenos in Tilcara perusing the markets for deals on hats and woven tops. Until I had seen these people I had always labored under the false association that you are less of a tourist if you are visiting something in your own country. When I stopped to see landmarks and important places in the states and saw a group of Japanese tourists gawking at the same spectacle, I felt that I was more in my element then they; that somehow I even deserved to be seeing Beal St or the French Quarter more than they did because they were part of my country. Seeing the portenos shopping in Tilcara, I realized this is an incredibly false assumption. They looked much more alien in the place than I did with their arms full of plastic bags bulging with tapestries and handbags and with their highheels beating out the same tattoo that pulses down Santa Fe at 10 o’clock on a Friday evening. I was tired as hell because we had walked about 30 km the day before and switched hostels in Tilcara to save a little money. The place we moved our stuff into was just a closet with bunk beds. The dogs barked outside most of the night and something about the place was oppressive and thirst inducing. God! I was thirsty in there. I was trying not to drink too much water after I had already gotten up and peed. My bunk was high up enough that it was difficult to successfully pull oneself onto in the dark, and the noise of my sudden landing on the mattress was more than enough to wake Gina up with a start on the bottom bunk. I was also literally plagued with nightmares up there. Like I said, the place had a weird vibe. I didn’t mind being so tired because all I had to do was ride the bus to La Quiaca, which I did in semi-daze watching the protean landscape roll past the dusty windows on the bus. It was hot, the bus was old and dirty, but damn! It was still a lot better than riding in the van that I had to ride in for my last job. After working as a traveling actor, traveling for pleasure, no matter how low-budgeted, is amazing enjoyable. I was able to fully stretch my legs out on the bus, that alone made it better than the van. So, the La Quiaca bus station is about what you would expect from the bus station in a border town. There wasn’t too much to see coming into the town, but, at the bus station there was a riot of activity. Gina and I were mobbed right away, but then another gringo couple that had blonde hair and bigger backpacks got off after us and everyone ran over to them. A taxi driver, seeing that there was no room over by the blonde backpackers came over to us reluctantly. I asked him about Yavi. He said we had to leave from the market, he’d take us there for 20 pesos. I turned to the blonde backpackers and asked them if they had designs on Yavi. They said they did. The diver agreed to take all four of us to the market for 20 pesos. When he dropped us off he told me to just start asking around. I went up to about five or six pickups, like the one that he had driven us in the back of, and asked. I got little encouraging response until a fat guy with hardly any teeth seemed almost exited to drive us all to Yavi. 15 apiece he said and since it was so much better than the 30 that someone else had said we took him up on it. As we were all loading up our packs a car came barreling in behind us yelling ‘Yavi nueve pesos!’ Whatever, the fat guy seemed cool enough and he had gotten there first. There’s very little in Yavi except a very beautiful church and some petroglyphs that we couldn’t find. The other backpackers seemed to sense this right away and then we were two again. Gina and I, undaunted by the apparent lack of things to do, wandered up the main street, which was really the only street. We tried a few hostels until we found one on which the door wasn’t locked. Still, we had to shove it open and in doing so, surprised a chubby, slightly metal looking guy who was drinking beer and staring off into space. He seemed happy to see us and we were happy to see him. The hostel was completely empty, but there was a nice dog, Vladimir and a cheap room. We put our backs down and the proprietor said not to worry about the key, everything was cool. Noting his manic chain-smoking behavior and coca leaf and alcohol breath, I decided to take my computer with we when we left all our other stuff for a walk. Yeah, the first impulse was right. There was nothing in Yavi except beautiful scenery and teenagers out getting ridiculously drunk out in it. The church and its curator were amazing. They had a candelabra in there that was supposed to be a dove representing the Holy Spirit, but looked much more like a white phoenix rising from the proverbial ashes. After we had found ourselves just walking down a desert road that clearly led nowhere, at least immediately, we decided that maybe we should just go back to La Quiaca. We could find a hostel there so that in the morning we could leave our bags and take care of changing money and going to the post office without having to come in from Yavi and tote the damn things around all morning. I felt bad about telling the guy at the hostel about our change of plans, but he seemed to take it really well and told us were we could wait for the shared taxi. We went into our room and grabbed our stuff. Out in the street, I had to ask some kids if we were waiting in the right place, there was no one else around. They shrugged and said yes, which wasn’t very encouraging. After about five minutes of waiting, I told Gina that I was going to run back to the hostel to give the guy a little bit of money for holding our bags for the day. I wanted to at least buy him a beer; it seemed wrong to have just bailed after he thought we were going to stay. He seemed to have had the same thought since we had left for the taxi stop. In fact, he was almost irate, telling me that someone had called about a double room and he had told them that it had been taken. He was lying, of course, but then again, I had lied to him and told him that our friends were waiting for us in La Quiaca. (I didn’t know how to politely tell him that there was no reason for us to stay in Yavi, sitting around the hostel, watching him get progressively further out of touch with reality.) He told me I had to give him fifty pesos, the sickly sweet smell of beer and coca spraying out of his mouth when he said the sibilant ‘cincuenta pesos.’ I told him I would give him forty, since I had planned on giving him ten and because I can’t ever just give people the amount of money they ask for. I could be getting robbed and I swear I’d try to haggle with the guy. Of course, when he agrees to forty, all I’ve got is a fifty. He’s cool and tries to give me weed for the remainder. I tell him I don’t want it and take twenty from him while giving him another ten. He seems confused by this but doesn’t get upset and when we part he tells me if we ever come back he’ll give us a discount. The next morning we woke up in an overly bright hostel in La Quiaca and crossed the incredibly open border on foot. Gina, who had technically overstayed her tourist visa a year was stamped across the border without incident and changing our Argentine pesos wasn’t very hard, although even the Bolivians seemed leery about taking them. We were hustled into a van going to Tupiza as soon as we approached the bus station and have been wandering through the town and lazing around our nice hostel room ever since. *********** After I finished writing that, I went to bed. As I mentioned, the room we had gotten in Tupiza was pretty nice and I was pretty tired. I fell asleep almost instantly and enjoyed a restful and dreamless sleep. There’s a sound, a loud sound, nearby. It’s breaking glass. Gina has turned over and is clutching me. Where am I? Bolivia, hotel. The sound again. Definitely breaking glass. It’s close. Is it in here? SMASH. Yes, it’s in here. What’s happening? What am I supposed to do? Is someone breaking in to the room? I jump up and lock the door and then jump back into bed. Gina grabs at me. I can see the wind blowing the curtains from where the window has been broken. I’m staring at the window, waiting to see something, a hand reaching in or another break. It’s completely still. There is no sound either inside the hostel or out in the street. I wait. “What was that?” I whisper to Gina. “Someone throw something through our window.” She tells me, also whispering. I knew that already, but when you’ve been woken up by something as strange as someone breaking your windows, it’s nice to have someone else affirm what just happened, in case you’re still dreaming. I decide that I should go over to the window. I tell Gina this. “No!” is obviously her response. “Just for a second; I want to see what happened.” As if I didn’t know what had happened. I’d just had it affirmed for me. Someone threw something through our window, but why? Where they doing it everywhere? I didn’t hear any other windows breaking. The silence outside remained unbroken. I went to the window, crouched down by the broken glass and looked over the sill. No one. I raised myself up a little. “Jonny!” Gina hisses at me from the bed. I hold up a wait-a-second finger to her and look back to the street below. No one. I go into the bathroom and look from the bathroom window. I look down the street both ways. There is no one in sight. I can’t see any other broken windows. “Why would someone…” And I cut off my own thought there because I’ve answered my own question. They’re outside the door. They’re waiting for me to leave the room to figure out what happened. When I do they’ll rush in. I sit back down on the bed, suddenly feeling trapped. I want to go out and see there is not even a hint of any activity in the hostel. Surely, someone else heard that? I start to think about Bolivia. How little I know about it. How we just got here earlier today. Do people break windows often in Bolivia? Do they rob tourists frequently? Do they have elaborate means of doing this such as breaking windows and waiting outside of doors? I remain in bed and Gina and I discuss all these points. I’m trying to decide if I should open the door. It’s not like anyone has tried to open it. Hours pass, Gina and I are still lying in bed in the dark, since the windows were broken we never turned on the light. It was about two o’clock when they broke. It’s about four now. We still have hours to go before daylight. At every passing sound we hold each other a little tighter. You can hear people’s feet kicking the glass below. I’ve decided against leaving the room. It seems like anyone who had been downstairs would have come to make sure we were ok. In the bed next to us there is broken glass on the bedspread. If we had not had a double bed one of us would’ve woken up to a spray of glass. The sounds outside become less threatening as more time passes and eventually we both fall asleep again waiting to be woken up by the sound of the remaining windows being broken, or by someone trying the door handle. About six o’clock I wake up. It’s light now so I go downstairs, while Gina takes a shower. There’s a few workers downstairs, one is even cleaning the sidewalk. He says nothing to me besides returning my buen dia. He doesn’t know which room I am in, of course, otherwise he would’ve said something. I go outside to smoke and look up and down the street. In front of me, there is a sliding glass window in four panes with a hole in three of them. That window is ours. There is no damage elsewhere on the street. Luckily, nothing seems sinister to me. I was worried that I was going to wake up hating Bolivia and scrutinizing everyone I passed for signs of maliciousness. By the light of day, the place looks as friendly and hospitable as it did before. We have breakfast in the hostel and no one mentions anything. Afterward, we go down to the bus station to get tickets for onward travel. There a café across from the station advertising espresso. It’s been awhile since we’ve had anything but instant coffee. We stop in. Espressos are 6 but Luis says he’d be able to give us two for ten. Sounds like a deal ,especially because I’m going to drink more coffee today regardless. While we drink our coffee Luis tells us about his café, shows us a video about how Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died outside Tupiza in a town called San Vicente. He shows us a block of lead and a block of pyrite that come from the regional mines. He’s a hell of a nice guy who obviously joined the café business to talk to people. Before we leave he asks us to decorate his wall with our thoughts on the place. I draw a cartoon coffee cup saying something to the effect of ‘Luis has really good coffee’ in Armenian. Gina, being more considerate, draws a deer saying, in English, that the café was wonderful. On the way back to the hostel, I begin to feel worried about the window situation. It’s now about nine o’clock, we’ve got tickets for 10 and I don’t have time for accusations. I should’ve been furious that no one had said anything to us after the night we had, but now, all I wanted was to not have to deal with it. My impression of the town had been restored, if it had ever really been battered, and now I just wanted to leave on a good note. The woman who checked us in the day before, is back at the front desk. She’s setting up a tour package with some people and doesn’t even regard my wave as we pass by. Back up in the room, I’m perplexed and slightly angry. “What the hell kind of place doesn’t even acknowledge it when someone throws rocks through your window in the middle of the night?” I yell to Gina once we are back in the room. Before she can respond, I add ‘If I had a hostel, I’d be telling those people to hold on a second and running over and telling us she’s sorry at least and that she’ll talk to us later. What kind of shit is this? We were practically terrorized!” I continue on in this fashion for a while until we decide that it’s about time to leave. She’s still talking to the couple about tour packages when we come downstairs. We take our packs off and sit down in the office. She continues talking to the couple for another few minutes before coming over to us. She tells me the price again and then asks where we are going next with a big smile. I’m so stunned I pay her and tell her. When she is getting our change Gina tells me that I should probably tell her. God! How could she not know? One of the windows on the front of the building is shattered with big holes in it. Is it really possible that no one told her? Not the person who was here in the night (if there was one) not the kid in the morning sweeping up the broken glass? She comes back over with the change and the same big smile. I take the change and ask her if she knows nothing about the window. She replies with what seems to be a genuine ‘no.’ After I try my best to explain to her what happened in Spanish she runs upstairs and looks. I am about to follow her when she returns. ‘Mil disculpe,’is all she says. I try to tell her how scared we were, the silence, the dark, the new country. ‘Mil disculpe,’ she repeats. Whatever, at least she’s not blaming us for it and we go. On the bus, someone stands up as soon as we take off and starts talking about the pathetic state of education and the rise of juvenile delinquency in Bolivia. I listen to him for a while, waiting to see what his point is going to be, before he suddenly produces stack of workbooks that eager students can do at home, only ten Bolivianos! After that, I stop paying attention. The bus isn’t nearly as nice as those in Argentina, but we’re in Bolivia, I didn’t really expect them to be nice. The gears crank and grind against each other, the squeak of the brakes becomes a squelch, there’s a sound like fan belt that’s about to break and the window above us is broken so it’s been repaired with black duct tape. Luckily the one below us affords enough of a view of the dizzying heights that we’re climbing. From the window, we can often see straight down about 100 feet into the valleys below. We bump uphill and downhill on a grinding, wheezing bus on a dirt road with no shoulder that is only about 1 and a half lanes wide,( at best) for about three hours without stopping until we reach a pueblo where, after the bus stops, it promptly breaks down. Neither of us are remotely bothered by any of this, however. The trip is probably the most unnerving I’ve ever taken besides the Aeroflot flight out of Kazakhstan to Ukraine and yet it’s adventurous and fun. The parts that aren’t comfortable are the parts of the journey that become stories later on. To some degree, that’s why people travel through such places. Anyone can go to Europe and stay in a nice hotel for a week, but there’s no excitement. It’s nice to relax but it’s nice to come back home and tell someone something other than ‘Damned if it wasn’t the best continental breakfast I ever had!’ The broken window and the bus breaking down for two hours are already stories that I’m telling you, and I’ll tell them in the future for all my friends who never read this stuff and anyone else that will listen. Best of all, it’s a story that Gina and I can tell together, a shared experience that we won’t ever forget. When the bus got moving again we rode through some nearly empty desert tracks until we came to Uyuni. When we got there (here) we were mobbed by tourist agencies trying to take us to the salt flats the following day, but we turned them all down and went by ourselves via a local bus and a long walk. It was much more interesting that way.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sweet Valley High

These are always short at first, then they get longer as time goes by and the newness wears away; the first time on a bus, the first time in a small town again, the sound of unabated wind, these things take time to get used to. You don’t want to interrupt your acclimation. A guy just walked by me with flip flops, no shirt and sunglasses in his hand. I can hear a bid trilling in the tree above me and another back behind the hostel with a slightly slower tempo. Gina and I just got here after moving from another hostel. It is still a key moment of our trip. Early yesterday morning we woke up in Salta. We had taken a 19-hour bus over night from Buenos Aires and came into the medium sized city around 6 in the evening. Compared to the pace of Buenos Aires, it was relaxing. Still, while we were climbing around a hilltop the next afternoon, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed at still being in a familiar place. A place that albeit was less Argentine than many other cities I’ve visited, but still predictable in other aspects. The regional food was advertised as such, rather than being a matter of course. During the day the streets were still noisy and although we found a nice hiking trail it terminated in a motorcycle racing track. All this made me feel more determined to get into a new country where there would be more open countryside to wander. The next day we got on the bus with tickets to La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia. I was a little stressed out about the prospect of changing Argentine pesos for bolivianos and had woken up early to use the internet and calculate a reasonable rate for the pile of notes I’ve got stashed in my sock and in other less conspicuous places. We left Salta, still in the dregs of morning light on the horizon; a light already strong and clear as it is in the morning in the desert. Outside the city, the tawny rolling hills began to break open to the jagged rock underneath. The red and yellow stone began to rip through in an almost brutal fashion creating a sublime landscape in which even the double-decker bus felt like a Matchbox toy, rolling along haphazardly. Cactus began to brindle along the facets of the colored mountains and then land along the road dove down into green valleys that seethed along the riverbanks. We took in the new landscape and sighed over the ticket stubs in our pockets that were due to take us past it all into a town that our hosts back in Salta had said had nothing to detour the traveler. I looked out longingly at the arch, crumbling landscape and wished there had been a way to see it without having to employ the services of a tourist agency. I contented myself by thinking that I was at least able to take a look at it and take a few smeary bus window pictures by which to remember it. After about three hours we pulled into a stop in a town called Tilcara that I had never heard of. The Lonely Planet had mentioned it in a passing way, but not in any kind of superlative ‘must-see’ language. Imagine: an old clapboard western movie set amidst incredible jasper and copper mountains and a small hippy town in Vermont shaken in together with adobe and dust and broad felt hats worn by men and women alike. The bus station was a formality, it was a place people came to rejoicing; they did not leave, but we did. The town was too small for a long stop over. The bus had been still about two minutes, giving us just enough time to gasp before it began moving again. ‘No, no, no,’ I thought. ‘Why did I not pluck up the courage quickly enough to run for the front of the bus yelling ‘para, para, queremos dejar aca!’? I quickly sidetracked myself by focusing on the next town, Humahaca, which had actually been written up as a popular tourist destination. It was in the same region, it was also small. Yes, Humahaca would be just as nice, if not better, we would get off there. I ran the idea by Gina, she thought it sounded good and with Humahaca only 40 km down the road we started to gather up our stuff to jump off. Already envisioning a reckless retreat into the scattered mountains, the bus driver chasing after us with our bags, while we shouted back to him just to pawn that crap; we didn’t need it; we had found our mountain paradise. As we drove further and further away from Tilcara the scenery began to droop. The towns began to look hastily constructed out of everyday materials: wire and concrete wounds on a quickly greying desert. The mountains were still spectacular but they no longer had the burnished and colorful look to them. Had they become commonplace already? Had our imaginations merely leapt at the area around Tilcara because it was the first place we had seen? The cactuses shriveled up and turned to rocks, indifferent rocks. The blue of the sky glazed over from lapis lazuli to suburban pool water. Humahaca sat crowded and city-like amidst the now faded grandeur of the mountains. Gina and I looked at each other. What happened? There was an advertisement playing over and over again on a stereo system within range of the bus station. I gave up and sat back into the seat, beginning to feel both dejected and restless; the bus was stationary, there was still time to do something. I pondered for a moment and then jumped up, telling Gina I’d be right back. I ran to the nearest ticket window. ‘Hay algo por Tilcara hoy?’ Si, a las dos’ The lady in the ticket window informed me. Ok, good enough. It was 11:30. We wouldn’t have to wait that long. I ran back on the bus. ‘Gina, c’mon let’s get off here.’ With her wonderful sangfroid she shrugs sleepily and gathers up the stuff around the seat. Outside, I tell the driver we’re getting off and need our stuff. He tells me no. We have to go to where our ticket says, la Quiaca, which is still about three hours away. I tell him that we’ve got to get off here. He doesn’t understand, so I just repeat it again. Finally, he gives in and tells the porter to get our bags out. The porter comes over and says that I need to wait to La Quiaca. ‘I need to get off here.’ ‘La Quiaca.’ ‘Here.’ We take the bags out and the bus departs. I go up to another ticket window and find that there’s a bus that leaves at 12. On the crowded bus we’re even able to find seats next to each other. Tilcara, has no sewage system and no gas. I can’t remember the last time I saw a place so wonderful. We walked out along a canyon yesterday and down into a waterfall. It was such a beautiful trail that we got up at dawn this morning to walk it again. I made the instant coffee a little too strong and had a panicky moment watching Gina walk nowhere near the edge. On the way back we encountered a little kid who told us that he was going to school and asked if we wanted to go with him. We were up along the edge of the canyon. There was nothing around. He was walking down the trail that we had just come back from and had seen nothing. ‘There’s a school?’ ‘Si, signor.’ ‘What do you study there? ‘…’ ’Do you study math?’ ’Si.’ ‘Languages?’ ‘Si.’ ‘Which languages?’ ‘…’ Ok, kid, go with God.’ But there was no point in saying that; there’s no other way for a kid going to school in the mountains to go.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Scenes from Plays and Letters

Tomorrow's the last show. We came into Chile two weeks ago. There was an overnight stop in Mendoza along the way. We checked into the room at the beginning of my last tour and went out for a drink. Simon and I found a place in a row of bars, nothing special at all but a nice place to talk about what was coming next for a while. Obviously, this has been the running theme throughout the tour: what I'm going to do next. My castmates all have their vague ideas, and I mine, only mine are much closer to becoming reality. On that night, sharing a pitcher of Fernet and Coke with Simon, my castmate I still didn't have any real answers, there's little to plan without actually being back in the states, but as the date of my departure from the company neared I weighed my words a little more. I didn't bound around so carelessly through ideas and dreams. I through seriously, what would I do next. There still didn't seem to be an answer, but it didn't bother me too much. I was happy just to have another moment to think about it. The next morning, we got up early and left for Chile. The border was beautiful. The crossing point was at the top of a mountain pass in the Andes. I was held back for not having my visa up to date and the company had to pay the three-hundred peso fine. It took us a while to work this out, since we were first under-charged and the officer didn't want me to get through without paying the whole fine. Fair enough. When we finally passed through we had to make our way down the pass. There was a switchback road that must've looped around a good twenty times on it's way back to the bottom of the canyon. Everyone leaned to one side of the van and took pictures. The landscape was high desert, a beautiful scene of tall saguaro-like cacti and khaki-colored rocks stacked up to an empty blue sky. The silence was almost complete. After a few more hours of driving the cliffs leveled out as we approached Santiago. We didn't stop, but continued driving south toward Concepcion, a college town about three hours south of the massive capital. Concepcion didn't seem to be anything at ten o'clock on a Sunday night. We got out of the van and stood in the silent street outside the hotel, listening to the beeping crosswalk signal. We commented how annoying such things are and that at night, they had the import of an appliance left on after everyone has left the house, a crackling radio, an endless television soliloquy. In the morning, the city looked totally different. There were people out and the sounds of traffic could be heard outside the hotel. We had nothing to do until the evening set-up at the theater. I stayed on the computer writing e-mails well into the morning. Around ten o'clock, after too much instant coffee and typing, I went out into the city to mail a letter. I meant to put my headphones on, but found myself feeling too comfortable. I walked down the shady sidewalks and thought of little except the peace of smaller cities. I was headed toward the campus, as from a map, it looked like it led out into the deciduous forest that surrounded the town. I was hoping the campus would have some kind of interpretive trail, or just some kind of trail at all. It did, but it was blocked off with a sign saying not to pass due to danger of fire. I tried to ignore the sign, but having no idea what could've been back on the trail--there was a kennel of German Shepards near the trail head--I decided to try to find another. Every trail I found had a similar sign. I found a little one that didn't, but it ended in a cloud of yellow flower bushes. While the profusion of color was incredible, it was also disappointing because it impeded further investigation. After wandering around the campus for a while I found the main library. I had to ask to be let in as a visitor. Going straight up to the fiction section I found one book in English, a two-volume set about a 19th century exploration of Tibet and the surrounding areas. It was obviously someone's life's work replete with sketches and daguarrotypes by the author. I handled it with the reverence it deserved and read about the death of one of his porters, thinking of what it must've been like to be one of the people who devoted their life to charting the world around them and how through the efforts of such people we have Onstar and Google maps today. When I left the library, the sun was shining. I found another trail leading out of one of the northern corners of campus and decided to ignore the prohibito sign. I hadn't gone too far when I came across a backpack lying at the top of a little trail I had followed. I decided just to turn around since there were some things spread out around the backpack. It seemed like someone was trying to make it known that they were there and didn't want to be disturbed. I turned around and followed another trail, within five minutes finding myself in the same place, only now approaching it from a larger trail. This time, I decided that whomever had left this stuff in the middle of the trail had probably just been lazy. I stepped over it and continued down the path. I hadn't taken more than a few steps when a sheepish looking student goes running past me. I said hola to him as he passed. He returned my greeting and I assumed that he was trying to get back to his things, perhaps thinking that I signalled the beginning of a mob of hikers coming down the path or something. I glanced ahead to see where the trail went and saw a girl, also college age hurriedly putting her dress back on over her head. "Ahhh, so that's what it was." I felt slightly sorry to interrupt, but damn, they were right in the middle of the trail. I passed the girl not knowing whether to say hola or not. Since she didn't meet my eyes, I decided that to do so would just be harassing her. I continued on the trail until I came to a slight rise, there, standing slightly behind a pine branch was a groundskeeper for the university. I said hola to him and he returned my greeting, making no attempt to hide that he had been watching the goings on below. I walked on, somewhat put off by the lurid scene, beginning to feel like I had walked into a David Lynch movie set I shrugged it off and kept going, but it wasn't long before I came to a dead end. Dismayed, I found that I had no choice but to turn back. I thought to myself that surely the students had called it off, or at least moved after I had gone by. The groundskeeper hadn't moved at all. I could tell by the way that he was no looking eagerly ahead that the salacious pair had resumed their activities, if not in the same place, at least close enough to provide this pervert with the luxury of not having to change his peeping location. Sure enough, as I glanced up the path, I saw the girl once again hurriedly putting her skirt on over her head. When I reached the couple, they remained where they were the boy had a camera and seemed to be taking a picture of the, now clothed, girl's thigh. It was later suggested to me that perhaps they had been doing some kind of art project, which is entirely possible. Even considering this, I could not quite shake the vaguely sick feeling I had after witnessing the scene. Especially, because I'm pretty sure that the couple must've been able to see the groundskeeper from his lousy hiding place. When I came back down from the trails, I looked at all the other students going about their studies. I was glad that they all had their clothes on and tried to imagine that they were all very religious and celibate. I didn't want to have to think about how many others were going to sneak into the woods later so that janitor could watch. My trip to campus hadn't been completely terrible. I did find one short little trail that had a beautiful waterfall at its end. I took a few pictures of it and told myself that I would bring my castmates to it after we had finished setting up that evening. I never got the chance. After we finished the set up and my castmate and I put our swords together we decided to run the Tybalt/Romeo fight scene to make sure we remembered the whole thing since it had been months since we'd had to perform the play. While we struggled, I discovered that, not only had I forgotten some of the moves; I had forgotten most of my lines as well. With a little coaxing most of them came back, but there were still a few gaps. Instead of going back to the waterfall, I decided to get a few beers and run over the lines a few times so I wouldn't look like a complete idiot the next day. Since then, I was able to do the Shakepeare play about 7 times. They all went well. We had the last show today. I'm a little disappointed that I didn't know that it would be the last show, as I would've liked too try to put a little more energy into it, but, even so, it was a great run and I'm glad I got to do what is surely our most entertaining play at least a few more times with some new gags that I added in, for example leaving the set and coming back on dressed as one of the characters from the play for young children: a seahorse to be specific. A few days later after shows in Rancagua and Vina del Mar we came into Santiago for the last week of the tour. We were all excited to find that instead of the usual hotel we would be staying in an apartment building downtown for the duration of our stay. The apartment is so much nicer than the hotels we usually stay in, mainly because its got cooking facilities. It's the first time that I've been on tour that I've been able to cook myself food, meaning that I'm not going to return to Buenos Aires ten pounds lighter. After we had gotten settled into the apartment we went out for a few drinks as it was Friday and we weren't going to have any work until Monday morning. We stayed in the bar a while. Smoking was permitted so I took full advantage and set myself back quite a ways in terms of the good health that I was already struggling to keep waking up every morning at five, doing shows until 3, taking everything down and getting back on the road again that same evening, only to repeat the process the next morning. It was a great night though, and waking up at 11 the next day with a slight headache, and feeling like an ashtray, I had nothing to regret. Friday and Saturday I visited the largest park in the city which is Cerro San Cristobal. Friday, I went there almost by accident after walking around all day seeing the city and having no idea what to do with myself. Since I didn't get to the park until twilight, I was able to see the sunset from on top of the mountain (cerro means hill, but in the case of Cerro San Cristobal it's more like a small mountain.) The view was incredible. The streets lit up far below me like an inverted night sky, only much brighter. The next evening, I went back again, vowing to see much more this time. I was a little weary of the many dogs that roamed that park since I had been bitten by one, completely unprovoked earlier that day and had been chased by another the night before. In the streets, I never worried about these dogs, but suddenly coming across one on an empty trail through the woods, I was slightly unnerved, especially when he began growling and barring his teeth, all the while advancing on me. I tossed a few rocks in his general direction hoping to scare him away but it didn't to much good. He watched the rocks skid by in the dust of the trail, almost aware that I had no intent to actually hit him. Somehow, I managed to get by without being bit a second time, but I picked up a stick soon after that and spent the rest of the day walking around with it. The stick served me well in the end because I had to use it twice, sort of sweeping it in a fan like motion to keep biting and growling dogs at bay. That night, I ended up walking another lonely trail. I was still slightly worried about suddenly coming face to face with a Doberman or something in the deserted park at night, but I was also slightly unnerved at the prospect that I might also meet a person out alone in the park at night. San Cristobal being nothing like a regular city park. It's so large they can't close it off at night and anyone could get in there. Given what I had seen of Chilean behavior on hiking trails in Concepcion, I was a little nervous. Still, the sight of the city below and the nearly full moon overhead gave me courage and I passed a few hours in the park at night, seeing nothing but some mendicant's fire which I observed after going up the trail toward the summit of the mountain. The fire was a little lower on the same trail, meaning that I had passed this person in the night and had never been aware of it, which, was a little spooky. Tomorrow, we'll have my last three shows with the company. I've had a great time working for them, but I'm happy to be going. It was fun to screw around a little more, but, at some point I realized that working for a travelling theater company in Argentina wasn't getting me any closer to where I wanted to be. I've been fortunate enough to have some pretty great adventures all over the world. And working as I did for the past year, I was able to add quite a few next experiences to the list. When I get back to California, I hope to continue acting, having found here that I really enjoy being on stage. The prospect of not having to repeat the same show over and over again is also very heartening and, as long as nothing happens tomorrow to put me off acting forever, I expect that I'll keep doing it in one capacity or another, as for what else I'm planning on doing, I still have no idea. Perhaps when Gina and I are going through Bolivia and Peru I'll be able to think of something.