This is maybe the greatest thing I ever wrote, with the exception of my book about Eve, Noah and Abraham and how Yahweh screwed them over.
This is about my visit to Peru, a country that could certainly stand as a beacon of lost exoticism in anyone’s mind. I don’t want this piece lost to the depths of the internet, so here it is.
It was 2006 and I was 24, my first year in Bolivia. It was nice. For the first time I was getting out and about in life, forming opinions and colouring in the grey lines of who I was as a person.
That was for better and worse, as our opinions make us feel self-important but if you examine it all, opinions are just meaningless and divisive things. I was up and down on the humility vs. arrogance spectrum that year, but tended towards the latter. I was deservedly and necessarily knocked down a few pegs when I later found out that actual work that most people have to do to survive is very hard; much harder than any fortitude I ever had.
April 27, 2006, Thursday: The thing that struck me about La Paz was that it’s a real city, with overwhelming traffic and tall buildings. In that way it’s probably the only city as such in Bolivia.
I was thrilled to be back, to be staring up at the wall of houses sweeping up the valley slopes, to be walking on the extremely slanted cobblestone streets. I unexpectedly went shopping on the street while headed back to the hostel and picked up a few winter supplies: better to do it in La Paz than anywhere else because Bolivia is cheaper than Peru (or anywhere else in the world) and La Paz, with its biting night-time temperature, would be cluey on winter fashion. I bought gloves and a beanie for the trek.
I wondered if I would have the fortitude to live in La Paz as I do in Cochabamba. La Paz is colder, bigger and more full-on, more hectic. But why not? I’ve come this far. I couldn’t do Cochabamba again because it’s not possible to repeat the great things we experience in life and if we try for repetition we just end up going backward. But I could try La Paz a few years from now. More likely, I would try another country. More likely still, I would be married and/or tied to a job, which would mean that my life of schlepping around would come to an end.
April 28, Friday: I left my mountain nation and crossed over into Peru. The border region, a repulsive town named Desaguadero that straddled both countries, was an array of Indian women strolling around everywhere and carrying on their back their bundles wrapped up in traditional indigenous patterned pink and blue blankets, potentially corrupt Peruvian cops (who at one point dragged me alone into a room and ruffled through the contents of my waistband, luckily without being excessively ‘interested’ in my cash and possessions), half-completed decaying houses and rickshaw-type contraptions that the drivers rode like bicycles from behind the passenger seats, the like of which I had never seen in Bolivia. It was a mess of people. We had to walk on a little bridge over a stream to cross countries.
For the first hour in Peru the countryside, the stone houses on the hills with political affiliations (Peruvian ones, this time) colourfully painted on the perimeter walls, the kids running around outside playing games, looked Bolivian – evidently lines on a map don’t change things immediately.
We got to the Peruvian city of Puno. Puno reminded me a bit of Oruro, with wide cobblestone and dust streets on the outskirts complemented by very narrow bitumen streets in the city centre, twin plazas that were the focus of the city, a part of the town that crept up the surrounding hills, a few junky-looking hills with ugly shrubs and run-down houses perched on them that serve as the city’s backdrop, the fact that everything was close and within walking distance, and the chill that bit at night-time. The Peruvian Oruro! Likewise, both cities only have one major attraction each: Oruro’s carnival and Puno’s Lake Titicaca with floating reed islands.
Peru seems to me to be a Bolivia without everything at your fingertips. What I love about Bolivia is that it’s so informal that anything is within reach: if you need a phone the Indian women with their food stalls in the street always have one, or there are call centres everywhere, or you can randomly use a phone in, say, a shoe store or anywhere, really. If you want to catch a bus, you flag it down like a taxi from wherever you are standing and jump off the bus wherever you want to. If you are thirsty, you can buy a 200ml Coke or Fanta off the street for 1 Bs. ($us 0.12c), enough to satisfy without bloating you if you chug it. If you need to change currencies, some dude or woman will appear on the next street corner with a bag of cash ready for a transaction. But in Peru I was back in the real world of throwing money into payphones, which is a practice I don’t really trust anymore.
For the moment the people seem to have the same racial characteristics as Bolivians, but maybe as we move further north away from Bolivia they will start to look more blatantly different. But the people of Puno act very differently to Bolivians, who are so detached that they don’t much care about your presence. In Peru you are focused on because you are a tourist with money: Let me shine your shoes! Buy this jumper! In the markets here shopkeepers actively call you out. Dudes give you little flyers to go into their nightclubs. They also talk to you with a few select English phrases: “Three soles! One dollar! Bye bye!” All of this fawning doesn’t happen in Bolivia, and I respect Bolivia for its absence.
Niki and I took a ride in a ‘tricitaxi’, one of those rickshaw-type bicycles ridden by a driver that you hire, which I was told are only seen in and around the Puno area. It was odd and fun: you are a part of the traffic but you feel vulnerable because they are open-air contraptions and you sit in front of the driver, in full-on view of the traffic around you.
One thing I have to remember is that one sol (the Peruvian currency), unlike one boliviano, is not worthless. You toss three soles aside and you’re already down a U.S. dollar.
But for the moment there is only a bit of variation from Bolivia, as yet.
April 29, Saturday: We saw the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca today. They are without doubt a marvel – blocks of earth and reeds are tied together with string (and can therefore be disconnected) and covered with reeds, and somehow these self-made islands manage to float. There are about forty-five reed islands only about a ten-minute boat ride from Puno, with about ten families living on each of them in reed huts. If you want to join a new island, you can just show up with your own block of land and sew it on. If you’re fighting with some of the other families on your island, you can disconnect your turf from the rest of the island and go live elsewhere. No problems, only solutions. There were also huge, Viking-looking boats made from pure reeds (we took a spin in one for ten or twenty minutes) and reed tapestries that the locals were trying to sell us.
Because there is no soil to grow crops, the islanders do some business in Puno as well, so are not independent from Peruvian society. Teachers boat in from Puno to work there from Monday to Friday.
We also visited another (real, not artificially-made) island, Isla Taquile, where the locals had a slightly more modern community happening with a central plaza and various off-the-cuff restaurants. It was almost the same as on Isla del Sol on the Bolivian side of the lake, which I saw in October, where there are trinkets on sale and the inhabitants charge you one sol or one boliviano (depending on which island in which country) to take their picture. At those moments on the island I wished I knew how to say hello to them in Quechua. All I know in Quechua is ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘what’s your name?’ and that Bolivian creed I wrote here in December (see Uyuni).
On Isla Taquile (and Isla del Sol) I felt that these are people that are beyond me, even though there are occasionally business transactions between us. Regular Bolivians and Peruvians are not completely from a different culture as me and I can always be friendly by saying a greeting in Spanish. But ever though these people here also speak Spanish to various extents (and even one or two things in English), to me they are unreachable. It’s a collision of different worlds. In October I got talking a little bit to one of the Indians on Isla del Sol named Sonia. She was twenty-three, the same as me at the time, but a harsh life meant that she looked much older.
I had to wonder about people who have tourists wandering daily in and out of their set-up, hoping that they get thrown a few soles here and there from white or Japanese people from a different world who will simply leave and be replaced daily by new ones. The locals on the Titicaca islands have to sweat a lot on other backbreaking work too, but it strikes me as being such an artificial life. But it’s hypocritical of me to knock it since I’m one of those tourists contributing to it. It’s just how the world is.
April 30, Sunday: The Peruvian countryside became greener the further away from Bolivia we got. It spread out into a long tube of a valley that had a wide river running next to a bunch of villages populated by Indians, places with names like Andahuaylillas. At one point a bunch of kids started smiling and making signals to me from the outside of the bus.
Cuzco is a very mythical name. It was the capital of the Inca Empire. A few years back when I found out with astonishment that a modern Cuzco still existed I imagined a very indigenous, remote city that would be one of the pinnacles of the exotic. Recently I found out that it was the opposite: the place is full of foreigners, either tourists or volunteers. Niki and I had dinner in an Irish pub and for the first time in eight months I was surrounded by Anglo-Saxons. In there it was pure English language.
The layout of Cuzco is awesome. We got there at dusk and so the first impression was by night. Big round yellow lamps hang from the houses and show the way. The streets are narrow – many only wide enough for one car to pass – and neatly paved with intricate patterns of cobblestones (unlike the disintegrating cobblestone streets of Bolivia). The footpaths for pedestrians become steps to climb as the streets curve up and down the contours of the landscape. You need to walk up and down a trillion steps in Cuzco to negotiate the hilly layout of the city. There were grand churches and beautiful plazas, and the lights on the hills in the city’s background are almost as striking as those in La Paz.
The streets have Quechua/Inca names. Our street was Calle Atoqsayk’uchi. I’m reminded that this part of Peru was (and is) pure Inca territory and tradition. Quechua is found in Cochabamba and Bolivia but only because the Incas conquered Bolivia’s original indigenous people. Here in Cuzco, however, is the Inca heartland.
It’s odd that these out-there Andean cities laid out in valleys that always looked so fantastically and otherworldly distant in photos when I looked at them a few years ago – with incredible names like Cuzco and Cochabamba – I’m now passing through as if they were simply Geelong or Bendigo.
May 1, Monday: We cruised around Cuzco spending copious amounts of money and eating a lot. I paid for something with a credit card today for the first time since I left Australia. Cuzco is a step up from Bolivia.
I served as a translator between the hostel receptionist and a couple of tourists. I also talked for a long time on the street with a thirteen year-old girl who latched onto me as an impromptu guide and won a few soles from me for her surprisingly informative approach. Spanish is a source of pride for me, especially when surrounded by other tourists. When the hawkers here in Cuzco try to get me into their restaurants or whatever by talking English, I always answer them (usually as a refusal) in Spanish. I want to show I’m no Johnny-come-lately to the South American continent. (Actually it’s spelled ‘Jhon’ or ‘Jhonny’ here.) In some situations it would be easier to pretend I don’t speak Spanish but I can’t do it. One sure way to piss me off here is if someone casually mentions that I don’t speak Spanish, or only a little bit.
Speaking of pride… if I was from Cuzco I would probably end up taking off, despite it being a beautiful place, because of all the tourists. I’m arrogant here and can sometimes have a surly attitude about the locals, but if the shoe was on the other foot and I were Peruvian or Bolivian I could fully imagine myself holding rancour against foreign visitors to South America. But from my current perspective it makes me feel safer to have so many around because now I’m not one of the only targets or focuses for thieves. Now I’m just a focus for restaurateurs, people with flyers for massage parlours, dodgy dudes trying to sell sunglasses, kids trying to sell woollen dolls, finger puppets and cigarettes from their baskets on the street, old Indian beggars, people selling tapestries, paintings and postcards either on the street or from the entrances to their stores. Pretty much anyone, really.
I’m trying different things lately. I regularly drink coca tea now. I just cut slits into the bottoms of my old jeans to make them funkier. Got a weird pair of boots to go hiking in. It’s only a day away.
May 2, Tuesday: We were walking from the market collecting supplies for the trek in the non-touristic back end of Cuzco and suddenly Cuzco looked less fantasyland and more like other Latin American cities. It was like being in downtown Cochabamba with its casual, run-down street setting, its slight desperation. I realised that we weren’t being pressed to buy anything down in that section of town and I realised that the gringo hustle of Cuzco’s imperial city was not a Peruvian vs. Bolivian attribute but simply that when there are a lot of rich tourists around, people are more used to getting things. There’s no hustle in Cochabamba because there’s no excessive number of tourists. In the low-tourist section of Cuzco there was no pressure because, I decided, the people there had little hope of success, which was a thought that saddened me.
The streets outside the imperial city were simply bitumen rather than centuries-old intricate stone patterns; there were no stone arches, no grandiose churches and plazas nor abundant restaurants. We were warned by tourist agencies not to go to the markets without an organised tour to shelter us but Niki and I are veterans and won’t be given doomsday advice. Ours is not a white bread South America.
But it’s a stretch to say that Niki is a trooper. Her out-and-out rejection and intolerance of Latin culture sometimes rubs me wrong here in Cuzco, the cradle of the Inca civilisation and the heart of Inca territory. I can feel protective of South America at times, even though this place is not my own. At times Niki is rather set in her ways: she came to South America without being prepared to take any of the difficulty that South America throws at you from time to time. Tonight our funky shoes that we’d had ordered from one of the stores weren’t ready on time, so we’ll have to collect them when we get back from Machu Picchu. Niki spat it. But things generally work out here, even though they don’t work to clockwork. This is South America.
May 3, Wednesday: I woke up realising that I’d been having a dream involving Liz for the fourth night in a row, which was getting a bit ridiculous. I was thinking of her to pass time as we walked on the trail but she’s irrelevant right now as we sit at six-thirty p.m. in a thatched shelter in a combination campsite and very small local village without electricity, lit only dimly by a gas lamp. I would say that we are outside civilisation (a guide of ours said that nothing much had changed here in the last one hundred years), except that we can still buy a chocolate bar or soft drink here, so we are not completely out – but as close as possible. Stray dogs, black cats and chickens wander around in the darkness in peace, houses are randomly constructed by stone brick on the slopes and the cooking currently being done by our guides is happening by battery-operated torches.
It’s odd that the rules change when there is no electricity. Apart from eating, the day is over by six p.m. when it gets dark. I have never been on a trek, so I packed too much. I didn’t realise beforehand how much hygiene is able to go out the window. I’ll be fuzzy-faced and smelly by the time we get to Machu Picchu.
May 4, Thursday: All my perspectives from this trail are at night because that’s when I write these things, once again with a candle my only light. In many ways the nights are the most interesting: we get in to the campsite just as it is getting dark at six p.m. and all that is left is to gather round inside the main tent and drink tea together, and then an hour later dinner. After that, all that remains is to go to bed. In the background of the tent the cooks are talking to each other in Quechua and our main guide, a Peruvian woman whose name is Voneth, is telling them what to do in Spanish.
Today the trek was a massive climb over a mountain pass (1200 metres uphill in three hours of walking, with a couple of breaks) followed by a massive drop where the walking sticks we carried came in handy to prevent the legs running into freefall. Towards the end of the day I explored an Inca ruin castle while clouds hung so low that they were mist and pure whiteness that shrouded the jungle below us as we walked down the 550 year-old uneven stone steps.
May 5, Friday: After a shivering night, the day started with us passing through a rocky tunnel and Voneth telling us that it is customary to make a wish while doing so. If you’ve read this far you would probably guess what my number one wish would be but I decided not to waste my wish on the impossible and instead opted for what I always used to ask for in Australia: to one day make it to Paraguay (which because of visa restrictions is itself looking unlikely these days). Then the trek went straight downhill for hours on end, and it feels like even longer when you’re alone with your thoughts and the only words you say are “hi/hola” to passers-by, although it was peaceful too.
The trail led into the jungle and often there was no ground at all next to the stone path that the Incas once constructed, just treetops. Eventually we got ourselves from the top of the mountain pass to the bottom of the mountain, crossed a river and (because of an avalanche having blocked the usual route the previous week) walked on the train tracks (!) towards the nearest Machu Picchu town called Aguas Calientes, having to step off the tracks every time one of the Cuzco-bound trains approached.
We got to Aguas Calientes at dusk. It’s one of the more expensive places in Peru because it’s so remote and tourism-based. Voneth told me that because of persistent avalanches the Incas had been too smart to live in that area but that tourist money had blocked the self-preservation instinct of the modern inhabitants. The town is centred on the railway lines that ferry people between the town and Cuzco and is an odd combination of upper-crust tourist town (souvenir stores, pizzeria restaurants, hostels) and, off the main drags, third-world disrepair. But it’s a cute place, probably because of its remoteness. Kids play soccer on the train tracks with tree-covered mountains the backdrop that towers above us.
Because of a recent avalanche that blocks the path to Machu Picchu, we have to stay in a bed and with shower and roof in a hostel this night. Glory. (The original itinerary would have bypassed Aguas Calientes.)
May 6, Saturday: I don’t know what’s wrong with my emotions but the day we got into Machu Picchu was no more or less significant for me than any of the other days we had been on the trek, or in Peru for that matter. On the other hand, Niki had been waiting for it for twenty years.
It was as if the trek had ended the third evening because of the avalanche that blocked the final pathway into Machu Picchu. We’d had dinner the night before in a room somewhere in Aguas Calientes, stayed the night in a hastily arranged hostel and at five-thirty a.m. this morning grabbed a bus from Aguas Calientes into Machu Picchu as if we were any old lazy visitors and the trek had never happened.
Going early in the morning was useful, even though the combination of darkness and mist meant that when we entered we were not immediately greeted with any grand classic images of Machu Picchu. There was a herd of twelve placid llamas that were definitely used to being scrutinised and we took photos of them until the sun came up and Voneth gave us a tour. It was pleasant being there early as the mist and the cool air definitely contributed to the experience, and there weren’t hordes of people swarming around. My feeling was that Machu Picchu had lost some of its spark when the sun was shining at noon. The mist is essential. But once it clears you at least get the dizzying sight of staring off cliffs at the jungle and rivers far below.
We had seen a lot of ruins on the trail, some of which looked like storybook fairytale castle settings with waterfalls next to them and the surrounding mountainside built up with old stone walled terraces to stop erosion, so in a way seeing Machu Picchu was more like seeing a bigger one of those. The Inca method of construction was to carve and polish their stones so that they fit exactly in with the next one, without mortar. I once wrote an essay when studying Spanish in uni that detailed my theory that the people in Inca society were very much like those stones: precise architecture was mirrored by a precise society in which the people were jammed in with each other without figuratively having room to move and express themselves. They did not have the ability to think individually and as such when a small herd of ragged Spaniards arrived they simply needed to kill Atahuallpa, the Inca emperor, and the rest of the Incas couldn’t even think to fight back.
I climbed a mountain called Huayna Picchu, which is the tall mountain in the background of all the classic Machu Picchu photos. My fitness surprised and impressed me but the climb and subsequent descent still left me stuffed. The summit was merely a few lofty boulders that heaps of people were trying to squeeze onto. Machu Picchu was far below.
We left Machu Picchu soon after at about one o’clock, taking a bus back to Aguas Calientes. Later that day we were wandering around town and I asked for a bit of info from a woman at a tourist information booth. I could see a little smile on the corner of her mouth as I talked to her in Spanish and she started asking me how to say certain phrases in English (she already knew English, hence her position, but you never stop learning). When we left, Niki asked me why I hadn’t asked her out. The thought hadn’t occurred to me. I went back twenty minutes later. Walking away from her office the second time, I couldn’t stop laughing in disbelief and was feeling pretty full of myself. Me, just another ‘here today gone tomorrow’ tourist (literally), had managed to get a semi-date with a local in a tourist town. I’d stood out.
Her name was Alida. Her features were very Inca-looking, indigenous in a Peruvian way. We cruised around for an hour walking up certain streets and I could see it was a small town because of the way she was able to say hello to almost everybody we passed and from their curiosity over who this stranger was that she was walking with. She has a heart: she stopped walking to crouch down and talk to a little boy who was crying because someone had pinched his last five soles. We went into the main square where there were some folk dancers who were up from Cuzco doing their stuff. The locals had suddenly reclaimed their town as night had fallen (the day had been for the tourists sitting on the outdoor restaurants on the promenade next to the train tracks): I was one of maybe only two or three foreigners at the plaza watching the folk dancing, in which the girls were elegant in their hats and skirts and the guys smooth with their black vests and pants.
I mentioned to Alida that Aguas Calientes seemed to have an upper tourist front and an underside where the locals do their thing. She said that every city was like that. Cuzco certainly is. But later I mentioned it to Talajeh, who replied that Cochabamba was not like that, and she’s right. Cochabamba has nicer sections but not façades. Bolivia in general doesn’t bother façading itself up for the tourists who in any case don’t venture beyond La Paz, the bike ride on the ‘Death Road’, the mines of Potosí and the Salar de Uyuni salt flats. Bolivia is grittier, more real. Talking pure English in an Irish pub isn’t an option there.
Alida took me to a low-key nightclub (it’s a low-key town, the clubs aren’t going to be palaces) where our semi-date fell apart, but not in a terrible way. I visited her the next day at her work. She’s a nice woman and I was impressed by her as a person, but she wasn’t looking at me when we were dancing (one of my little tics is that a woman has to look at me occasionally when we are dancing together just to prove that she is connected to me and having fun with me) so I jumped into the centre of the crowd and started it up for fun with the girl who was in the limelight. At every moment I was looking around to orient myself to where Alida was but at some point she had left, which is obviously an indictment on me. The second girl was a nineteen year-old from Cuzco named Ana Cecilia and we tore it up together. Looking at her face and looking around the place, I realised that everyone’s features were distinctly Peruvian. It wasn’t like Puno where people could pass for Bolivians.
A few years ago I was twenty-one and there was a mutual attraction that I had with an American girl named Liesl who was sixteen, which I felt was a dodgy age difference. Three years later the twenty-four vs. nineteen equivalent just made me shrug, even though Cecilia thought I was a little bit old. Cecilia mentioned that she had a French friend who danced like me. It turned out the guy was only around for a week, which made me sad. It’s a subject that I’ve thought about at length when in Bolivia: people come and people go; South Americans see their family members take off for other countries as a way of improving their lives and have to accept they will barely ever see them again; foreigners step into the South American scene, have their fun, go home and leave a bunch of people behind missing them. It would be difficult to be South American and see people you are fond of regularly leave you hanging. I’ll end up doing it to them too.
Cecilia assembled a few friends together and walked me back to my hostel as a precaution, which touched me. It became very tender towards the end. She was going to Machu Picchu the next day with her university group and asked me a few times how we could see each other again. We arranged for eight o’clock the next morning in the plaza but when I cut breakfast short to go down there I didn’t see her. I would have liked for her to be more than just a memory.
May 7, Sunday: There are baths a bit up the hill from the town, hence its name Aguas Calientes (‘hot waters’). The townspeople themselves say that Aguas Calientes is a mistaken title that the tourists call them: they say that their town is named Machupicchu itself and that the famous tourist Machu Picchu is the ‘Sanctuary of Machupicchu’. We popped in to the baths to have a relaxing morning spent soaking.
That day as we walked towards the train station I thought I was very clever by carrying my bag like the African women: on my head. Instead of lugging, my body was free and easy and I even had time on my way, bag on head and all, to pick up from the market a CD of local huayno music, which is like nothing I have ever heard before. But sitting on the train my neck muscles began to object to my innovation of a few minutes earlier.
Arrangements fell apart. We took the train to the rustic town of Ollantaytambo, which has an ancient Inca ruin fortress of the same name staring at the town from the hills above (legend has it that in Inca times the warrior Ollantay and the princess Cusi-Coyllur shared a forbidden love), where we were supposed to be picked up but weren’t. I got talking to three drivers loitering around to get some info, which was an amusing conversation in a macabre way. They sympathised with my situation but couldn’t take us to Cuzco without a lot of money, I sympathised with their situation but wasn’t going to pay that money. At one point one of them said, “We drive to survive, we don’t make profit,” and I replied, “I know what Peru is,” which caused two of them to smile. The third one continued cleaning his fingernails with a pocket knife without reaction. Of course it was a bald-faced lie. How can I know what Peru is? I have a slightly better idea than the other tourists but I breezed through the joint eating at restaurants and paying for tours, just like everyone else.
After more phone calls and fretting we had to hike ten minutes to the town, throw our bags on top of a local minivan and travel to some town called Urubamba cramped in the van with the Indians. It only cost a sol. From there we took a cab to Cuzco, which cost a lot more. (But we were reimbursed.)
Cuzco had lost its romance. It was maybe because it was now just a stopping point to sleep in, but I was no longer dazzled by the narrow streets and brick roads by night. The same thing happened to me in Puno the next night: no excitement; we had been there and seen it already. I was sorry that I wouldn’t have the chance to see my various cusqueña girlfriends (the thirteen year-old guide named Susi and Ana Cecilia) but was compensated by finding my funky light blue shoes had been delivered to our hostel. Oh là là.
May 8, Monday: We took a train to Puno, which took all day. On our way we passed through a city called Juliaca. It was a horrible place where the train line was simply one long market of junky bits and pieces that had fallen off the back of trucks, dust roads and nothing else, even though according to a guidebook over 100,000 people live there. Niki said Juliaca was worse than Bolivia. Maybe Peru has slightly more money than Bolivia but the towns in its countryside are in just as much an abject state as the Bolivian ones. We saw two kids playing on top of a dirt pile and Niki said, “Aren’t you happy you grew up in a place where there were parks, shopping centres, concert halls…?”
I have to give credit to Niki, she makes interesting observations about South America and is not completely out of place here. She came to get teaching experience and has done so, more than me. She takes regular public transport in Cochabamba, cramming herself into the minivans (the ‘trufis’) and the buses. All I ever do is either walk or take cabs. On the train Niki talked about how the Indians have done well to keep their identity constant in the face of a changing world (not quite so changing in Bolivia, mind you). “They have their identity, their clothes, they keep it and are proud of it.”
There were a lot of French people on the train. Some of them were going to go out that night but Niki and I passed our last night in Peru eating at a cosy restaurant we’d dined at once before where folk singers wearing patterned ponchos played the pipes, guitars, ukuleles and drums and according to Niki one of them is the “Peruvian Val Kilmer.” Then we collapsed in the hostel, nothing more. Oh well. I had never figured on picking up two Peruvian women in the same night in my pre-Peru plans. I hadn’t thought I would be going out at all. I could therefore live off that night and be content.
An afterthought: the thing I really wanted to do that night and the next morning was to get a photo of a Peruvian policewoman. The police uniforms are a dreary brown colour but the women are stylish in their long brown skirts and black leather boots. Never got the photo.
May 9, Tuesday: Last time I got back to Bolivia (from Chile) I ate a midnight meal in La Paz that was like a symbolic welcome back that incorporated all that I like about the country. This time it was different, even though Peru to Bolivia is less of a culture shock than Chile. Today Niki and I have been searching in vain to find a way for her to grab some money. She will consequently have to lean on me until we get to La Paz. The whole issue depressed me and made me realise what a backward place Bolivia really is. Welcome back. I realise I had gotten used to being in Peru.
Copacabana, like Cuzco and Aguas Calientes, is a tourist town, and like Aguas Calientes is a slightly artificial place. I had considered it cute when I was here in October because of the brightly coloured buildings (they beat La Paz’s brown ones), the beauty of Lake Titicaca which it sits on and the quaint size of the town. Niki also loved it for buying alpaca scarves, jumpers and so on for half of Peru’s prices. But… it’s a Bolivian tourist town rather than a Peruvian one. The Peruvians know how to rope them in: guys or girls at every restaurant door promoting their menu to any passing gringos, ATMs within arm’s reach in many clothes stores and restaurants, Visa accepted, internet all round, laundries, nightclubs. All Copacabana has are strings of tour companies on every street, not terrific restaurants, exorbitantly expensive (and slow) internet that in any case is difficult to find, and the lake. Mind you, Copacabana (Bolivia) is a much prettier Titicaca town than Puno (Peru), but the Peruvian side has the floating reed islands (the Bolivian side doesn’t).
I was walking around with Niki and it was relaxing not to have to hustle to organise anything anymore. I had a look around and decided I was happy not to be born Bolivian and simply be hanging around bored all my life, without work, money or things to do. As for the food: I bought a packet of biscuits from an Indian woman’s stall and had to throw them away because they were mouldy and stale. Yuck! But for dinner $us 6 was enough to stuff myself stupid, as opposed to Peru where $us 6 is serviceable but not fantastic money.
But I’m underwhelmed to be back, to be honest.
May 10, Wednesday: We entered La Paz in a trufi (minivan) because the timing of the regular bus didn’t suit. The extreme up and down slant of the roads in La Paz (such roads surely couldn’t exist in a real city in the real world in real life) just left me bamboozled, yet again. La Paz never loses its wow factor, Niki said.
We took a cab down to the wealthier southern zone of the city, which was a bit like being in eastern suburb Melbourne. Life was not chaotic nor was the driving style, the streets were not slanted nor made with stones, the people were all dressed elegantly and I had to wonder if we were in the same La Paz. The cab ride down had been like a mini-tour in itself. La Paz seemed to be situated in a tube-like valley that slowly sloped down. It took us forever to get down to the zona sur: something like twenty minutes driving ever-downhill.
Then we went back up. We walked around the streets buying woollen souvenirs. La Paz has a wonderful otherworldly look that inspired me to sneak out my camera for a few shots of people on the streets. Sometimes you pass by marvels such as dried-out baby llama skeletons being sold on the street as fetishes. But I never received my ‘welcome back to Bolivia’ moment that mirrored the midnight dinner in January. The nearest thing I got to a welcome back was when some filthy ghost behind me spat on me perfectly, directly into my ear.
Once again, just as I stopped feeling the urge to spend more time in Santa Cruz after walking around it for a day, the same feeling happened for me with La Paz. It’s cold; living there would be the best I could get to stepping onto another planet but from a purely physical sense it would be a bit uncomfortable. (I could try Africa to outdo La Paz’s otherworldliness but I wouldn’t be able to speak their languages. This Bolivia experience is as accessible as the extremely exotic can get.) La Paz is a kind of depressing, shadowy colour no matter what time of day it is. This city is too hectic and not so safe either. It would be trippy to live in La Paz, an incredible experience. But there are other places where life is more suave (a Spanish word for soft, smooth, or gentle). Why do we need to fortify ourselves just to prove a point to disinterested onlookers?
May 11, Thursday: As it turned out, there had been a bus strike happening in Bolivia for two weeks: we had gotten out of the country just in time. We left La Paz early and were extremely fortunate to be able to catch a renegade bus line with no title for only a fraction more than we would otherwise pay. We had to change buses once at the top of the La Paz valley (in El Alto, the Indigenous slum city) for no apparent reason and then when we got back to Cochabamba the driver tried to drop us off next to the Heroínas de la Coronilla hill, where all the thieving drug addicts like to hang out, but was shouted down by the passengers: Take us to the terminal! They’re waiting for us there! There is less restraint on the cross-country buses here. If people who have asked the driver to step off take too long to get off the bus, everyone will start shouting “¡Vamos!” (Let’s go!) But it’s a credit to Bolivia’s informality that people can jump on and off the buses wherever they please.
Having been away for two weeks, Cochabamba had a newish tinge that late afternoon. The streets were familiar but there was something different in the air. I often feel it when I get home in Australia too after being away for a week, six months, whatever. I’m on the home stretch now. There are two and a half months left in Cochabamba and in that time my life will be getting a little simpler.