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.

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