Sunday, November 11, 2012

I Can Miss Everything Now

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

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sleeping in Your Clothes

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

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Only Shallow

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