With one hand he held mine, and the other gripped my shoulder. “You know, just watch after her,” said Edson. “She’s my sister.” He was looking at the ground and shaking his head side to side. “Take care of her,” he said. As I watched his consternation with the floor, I realized that if anything were to happen to Mayra, he would probably want me dead. And this, he had no idea we would be hitchhiking.
When the morning came that we would leave, the sky was garua overcast and we were wide awake before sunrise. We threw out the night’s pasta which in the humidity had already begun to smell rank, then hauled our packs to our shoulders and left out the door for the last time. Fog came around the corners of buildings and spied on us as we walked the already bustling streets.
Two city buses brought us back to the same tollbooth I’d already hitchhiked out of twice.
“What do we do now?” Mayra asked. I smiled at her, and looked around the place. It was Thursday March 15th, and Limenians were headed to the beach. The stalls beside which we stood were filled with colorful swimming aides and lawn chairs, pails and baskets of childrenâ€™s’ toys. There was no sun, and I was thankful that we opted not to leave that Friday, since the crowds would surely drown out prime hitchhiking space.
“Now we hitch,” I said. My heart was gladdened to see her unhesitant to take the reins. She stretched out her thumb and didn’t mind all the eyes. She was hitchhiking.
I felt a sort of pride as she flagged down her first ride 30 minutes later-a big rig. She climbed into the cab and I handed up the packs. And like so many moments before, that feeling that rises like a great upwelling of nutrients from somewhere deep and dark came back washing over my senses and breaking a stolid state that had been heavy set for a time. We were underway, back on the road and off toward newness that had at once frightened and tempted me daunting.
Peru’s coastal highway cut through the desert sands past long chicken coops and along endless stretches of beach. I looked at the Pacific Ocean in its largeness, and became lost in thought. It was all well and good in any case, since Mayra and our trucker friend had entered into a conversation that I didn’t need to follow. From time to time I’d looked back at her, sitting on the patterned mattress behind our seats, and she’d smile at me to tell me that she loved it; she loved it.
The trucker treated us to a new thing: yellow watermelon. It tasted sweeter and seemed to satisfy better than its rosy cousin. By the time I’d finished eating my third helping we had arrived to the outskirts of Chincha Alta, where we thanked our ride and hopped out at a gas station.
I watched as without a second thought Mayra went into the trashed bathroom, and I thought how wonderful this girl this so clean girl and innocent and bluntly finding herself in new circumstances does not become stubborn for a more sanitary situation but goes to, quite righteously championing and taking for her own this newness.
When she came out we spoke.
“Your first hitchhike, how did you feel?” I asked.
“I feel wonderful,” she told me. “My first ride.”
“Well unfortunately we’re on the north side of a city and we have to be on the southern side. Are you ready for a walk?”
We took to the pavement, and for hours we walked. When Mayra couldn’t continue we’d stop in some shade and remove our packs. Perhaps it was the shade of a lamp post, or just the shade of a big sign promoting Coca-Cola or something else, but most likely Coca-Cola. Her jeans were tight, and watching her walk in them made my own legs feel fatigue. But we continued like that, and eventually a few hours later made it to the other side of the city.
“Now you’ve had two of the main hitchhiking experiences,” I said. “A long haul with a trucker and a long haul walk across a city under the sun. In bigger cities we’ll take buses.”
With Mayra rides come quickly, albeit the walk across Chincha yielded nothing, but cities will do that. Once south of the center, passed stalls of manjar and giant bottles of wine, we were quick to be taken by another trucker. He wasn’t interested in me, and spoke with Mayra all the way to a steel plant just south of Pisco. The advantage is that I don’t have to spin off the same explanation of what I’m up to. The disadvantage is that I don’t get to.
At the steel plant a came up to us when we’d hopped out of the truck to tell us that we wouldn’t get picked up there.
“He said we can’t get a ride,” Mayra said as we walked away.
“Cops always say that.” I heard myself say it, but Mayra made me realize that my knowing that the cop wasn’t right was not basic hitchhiking knowledge, but rather something that I’d learned over the years. I blurted out, “wow, damn, I didn’t even know that, but I know it, you know?”
“Mmhmm,” she said.
We found a coupling of wooden shack roadside restaurants, and I showed Mayra 6 soles. “We ask for all the food they can spare for this amount,” I said.
Mayra was surprised to see that we were given a full meal of entree soup, aji de gallina and refresco to drink.
Outside I thumbed at a parked trucker from across the street, and he gave me a low petting dog sign as though he wanted to say no, but that he didn’t want anyone seeing him do it. Further down the road we walked, and when the same trucker in his bright green International was passing Mayra threw out her thumb. For her, he stopped. So it goes.
He was Chilean, living in Arequipa. He cab had a big subwoofer and blasted the kind of calming music you wouldn’t expect someone to use to remain awake. He was bald. The left eye hung to near closed, and seemed an apt feature for a man as jittery and twitching as he. During the ride he would swing around back and yell at Mayra about how he knows all the “holes” of Lima, or would talk about how clean and like lettuce he was, or would blur his words so I might not understand. He was a flirt and a lunatic, and treated the road more like a guideline than a rule. When he stopped for a coffee and Mayra and I stayed in the cab, I took her hand and said look, I hear everything, and I know it’s uncomfortable but I’m right here. Don’t be nervous, go ahead and play with him, humour him if you want, but don’t be nervous. I’m here… But I didn’t need to say any of it because she was plenty fine and thought “El Chileno,” as he is called, a very noble pervert.
The Chilean kicked us out in Palpa, some 40 minutes before Nasca, and drove off.
“Chael I think the Chilean was buying drugs back in Ica when he’d stopped to meet that friend of his,” Mayra said.
“Ah ha, so he kicked us out-”
“He has cocaine, I think he doesn’t want us to see him take it.”
I laughed hard, “ahahhh, the snorter! Better off that he kicked us out anyway, who knows what powder will do to a guy that nuts already,” I said.
We began walking out of town to the south, across a bridge and into darkness.
“Actually this goes against a rule I have for myself,” I told her. “I never do this in the dark. But we have to find a place to camp.”
As the lights dimmed more, Mayra grabbed my arm. “I don’t like this. It seems dangerous.”
“Let’s go down there–look! A church. If there’s a truth about here, it’s that no one messes with you near holy sites.”
The quaint little white church glowed peachy in the late-night streetlamp glare. It was situated in a low depression beside the road, and so made for a workable place to camp. We found a spot under a broad branched tree and pitched tent, there to sleep until morning.
When morning did come there was a gathering of motor taxi drivers outside the tent. When they began talking about the tent and who might be in it, Mayra hid beneath her sleeping bag and I opened the flap to greet the men upside down. What thoughts must have passed their minds because of this upside-down gringo.
Gas station bathroom, a bit of bread and rosquillas and all of a 5 minute wait, and suddenly we were aboard yet another big rig with Manuel of Arequipa. And so went a ride all the way to Peru’s second city, Arequipa. I’d returned to the mountainous desert coastal way that curves around rocky ridges and climbs and descends the great walls of valleys. Mayra and Manuel spoke about family, and I seemed to tune out. Sometimes I spoke, but I didn’t want in on a conversation about how great kids are. In fact they’re not great. They’re a continuation of dual love and the remarkably human irresponsibility that comes with the fact of children in a world as corrupt as ours. Or do I believe that?
Only once were we held up on the road, when in the town of Otona informal miners had blocked the road. In many parts of Latin America when you need your voice heard you have to block the road. Governments are despicably centralized, and sometimes clamping a vein is the best way to make the head woozy. Otherwise, these informal miners can’t very well afford travel to the capital to stage protests for an indefinite amount of time. A protest in their small town will not be noticed if the main thoroughfare doesn’t have a role.
After an hour waiting, the miners decided to let the long line of trucks through. Apparently, the main protest had yet to begin. As we drove through the evening hordes of hardhats and tall wooden sticks used for slamming the trailers as we passed, I saw dark faces. Some were young and some were old. There were women, too. They screamed and yelled and banged their sticks against the trailer. I ducked beneath my hat so as not to attract too much attention, but someone saw me and chucked a rock through the open window, which struck me in the throat. It was a small rock and an annoyance more than anything, but I shelved my reaction until we passed the crowds and I could vent of the pain to Mayra and Manuel.
“I was hiding beneath my hat,” I said. “The miners might’ve thought I was Canadian.”
Hours later and well into star-filled night skies, we arrived to the city of Camana, the last before an ascent of 5 hours would bring us to Arequipa. A bit further on Manuel pulled over for a rest. Mayra and I climbed out of the cab with the intention to camp somewhere, so as not to arrive to Arequipa a big city in the middle of the night as Manuel had planned. Instead, he said not to worry, he’d probably arrive around 5am. He led us to a small door in the side of the wooden trailer. “You guys can sleep in here if you want. It’s just bags of rice.”
And so in as much as two days Mayra was getting all the typical experiences you can expect to have hitchhiking in South America. We laid our sleeping bags across the rice sacks, thanked Manuel and fell quickly to sleep. When he woke us up a couple of hours later to inform us he was underway, we opted to remain in the trailer.
For 5 hours Mayra and I laid together over the rice sacks, and above us blackness gave way to blue.
“It’s surprisingly comfortable,” she said. It was, with extra jackets stuffd between the sacks where otherwise there would be a dip.
We arrived in Arequipa. Through the wooden grates of the trailer I saw the imposing Mount Misti, a stratovolcano that towers over the city like a watchman, a hood or something pointy. The truck pulled up to a house down a small road, and I wondered how Manuel might get it out again. It was his parents’ home and he invited us in. Mayra and I shook hands and kissed relatives on the cheeks. The house was home to 12 people, and had a spacious atrium filled with various appliances and washing things on the first floor. It was open to the blue sky, the second floor balcony wrapped around its sides.
In the kitchen a few flies buzzed while we dug into bread and butter, with mugs of cinnamon tea and sugar. Mayra became fascinated by Manuel’s son Nicolas, a chubby kid and shy to the point of apparent fear, a symptom of childhood. She smiled and spoke motherly to him. I just stared at him as thought he was some kind of rival, as though I was his age and we were unsure of each other.
Manuel took us to the roof where a full 360 view of the surrounds dazzled my eyes. Beside Misti were other huge mountains likewise capped with white blue snow, whose sharp shadows contrasted against sun-lit ridges to create a truly ineffable image. Around us scurried naked chickens. There were wooden cages of soiled rabbits, and down below I saw geese and guinea pig pens.
Eventually we thanked Manuel and his family, and took off on foot toward the center. Mayra looked elated, and rightly so, that her first destination had been reached via unlikely and magnanimous truckers.
Arequipa is Peru’s white city. Like all cities, the center preserves that traditional beauty of architecture that modernity seems to have forgotten. I mean to say that the urban expansion in a ring around the city, with tentacles that stretch out to follow the main routes in and out, is made up of mundane and reptitive constructions. Sprawl, as it were. I hope we’ll always have the centers.
Arequipa’s whiteness comes from its bright gray stone, sillar, which is cut in large blocks and set together prettily. The plaza de armas is an attractive square surrounded by three long buildings of second floor balconies and first floor arcades ending in large arched entryways. The fourth side of the square is dominated by a large church fronted by a black iron fence and gate. The square itself is filled with people sitting under the scant shade of palms, old men feeding pigeons and when we walk through I throw side glances at a few male pigeons doing that dance of courtship, the global dance if ever there was one.
Mayra humored my insistence to walk, and now that she was wearing my second pair of pants instead of those constricting jeans, she was happier. I liked to see her in my pants; those pants that were given to me by a German long ago in Baja California.
We stayed in Cayma, a city apart but rather a district of Arequipa. There, we met Fernando, who would be our host through CS for a couple of days. It took a long while to walk there, and when finally we arrived and a pair of Austrians let us up to the apartment, I fell heavily into a couch. The apartment itself was spacious and through one of the two bedrooms a terrace gave way to more postcard views over the city.
Eventually Fernando returned. An Peruvian English teacher from Lima. A large guy, he gave off an aspect of friendliness that somehow large guys only can. By the time the house had seen all the CS arrivals of the day, we were Mayra and I, the two Austrians, two Germans, two Spaniards and Fernando.
Someone cooked mushroom sauce pasta. Someone else bought beer. I might’ve been reminded of The House of No Ends except that there was no Camilo and Franco, no hookah, no Dici, and no edgy conversation. At one point the decidedly strange Austrian girl exploded in anger at the Austrian guy, and everyone began to figdet with their fingers in their laps as the harsh language was made harsher by her madness.
That night I dreamt of bad grades and murder. The dream stretched out and seemed unnaturally complex and comprehensive, something that perhaps the altitude is want to cause.
In the morning the other guests went off in a group to see the city. I liked the people, but conversations of where you were and where you’re going and what’s cool and are you going to go to Colca canyon to see the condors weren’t how I wanted to spend the day. And we weren’t going to go to the Colca canyon, one of the largest in the world, because it cost 35 sols to enter and besides we weren’t enthused. What?? You’re not going to one of the largest canyons in the world just because it costs 15 dollars?? But it’s just 15 dollars!! …Alas I challenge you to travel continuously for years and say it’s just fifteen dollars every time you find something popular and touristy to do. This is travel. This is lifestyle. This is not vacation.
Instead Mayra and I went into town, to the San Camilo Market, where we negotiated a plate of rocoto relleno with extra rice. Arequipa’s traditional dish of stuffed bell pepper went down with a bit of spice. Meat, cheese, olive, egg, onion and raisins were all crammed into the baked red bell. Afterwards we climbed to the second floor to find a local treat of cheese ice cream slabs sprinkled with cinnamon dust. The market itself was attractive. Tall orange sheet metal roof panels glowed in the daylight and made the already atmospheric market scene warmer. We found all sorts of fruit, one of which was completely new: tumbo, an oval-shaped passion fruit of the more acidic variety.
Arequipa’s colonial streets degrade into that sprawlness the further you get from the center, but its center preserves a sense of past in more than several blocks. Walking among the white buildings of dark wooden balustrades is especially enjoyable shared with a girl.
Mayra purchased a fruit popsicle and made me taste it.
“Agkhh! It tastes fermented!” I withdrew a spit at the same time, the distaste lingering in my jawls.
“It’s called aguaje, it’s from the jungle!” she said.
“That doesn’t make it taste any better. Gross.”
“I like it.”
“Don’t lie to yourself.”
“…They say that it turns men gay,” she said with a queer sideways glance.
Back at the house Fernando had prepared chilcanos, a cocktail of water, lime and pisco, second only to the pisco sour in terms of national clout. A bit of this and I entered a daze. The others had arrived, and we cooked spaghetti. I was glad that we hadn’t gone with them when I learned about all the taxis and restaurants they had visited.
Fernando and I entered a serious conversation about zombies, and after dinner we turned on his playstation 3 to kill some in Call of Duty. I told him that I once played Call of Duty 1 on the PC, that I’d been an ace in Search and Destroy, and that later versions of the game made me impatient since they took out the ‘lean’ ability. Fucking game developers.
The following day Mayra and I shouldered our packs, said our goodbyes and left. I withdrew 135 USD from Scotiabank, then we jumped on a bus to Yura from Avenida Ejercito. The city fell behind and Yura’s giant concrete plant came into view and grew like an object of the horizon does. Ruta 34A would take us to Juliaca, that dirt dust crap city that Sammy and I had experienced so many months previous.
At a long stretch just before Peru’s Sutran custom agents and a few dozen police at a makeshift checkpoint, we sat upon our packs and began hitchhiking. Mayra insisted to ask a pair of truckers who I said wouldn’t take us with the excuse of no room, and proved me wrong. Hitchhiking as a couple. So it goes.
The truckers were Javier and Francisco. Javier was an Afro-Peruvian from Chincha Alta, and when he spoke his utterances would end in a burst of air as though he’d been forcing the words out all along. Francisco had a red face, and flashing green eyes that blinked heavily in conversations. Mayra and I went with this pair into the altiplano, that incredible flatness at the top of the world where only vincuna and purple lipped ranchers call home.
As was likely to happen, most of the attention was given to lovely Mayra, and I sat and listened, hoping that maybe I was growing. Hell if I could tell. The sky moved, and the clouds changed to wisps. We drank coke and ate pejerreyes, a small fish deep fried in its entirety and eaten likewise. By the time it was late afternoon mud brick houses began popping up alongside the road. Eventually the landscape was gone, or transformed, rather, into adobe huts and brick homes clinging to the sides of the roads. The sun remained, but plumes of dirt filtered the blueness of the sky into a milky white coffee murk. Welcome back to Juliaca, shit hole of Peru.
Javier chattered on about something while Francisco seemed to counteract him at every turn. “No. Damn! It ain’t that way. Damn!” Francisco was from Nazca and spoke about how he knew no one there. “I like to stay home. I’m getting cable soon. You know I like you guys,” he said. I discussed loudly with Mayra about what we’d do. “Sleep in the trailer,” said Javier. “Ya no pasa nada pe. Voy a una gasolinera todo rico bien duermen bien.” We said maybe, but we’d see about it.
Juliaca was as shitty as ever. At least with Sammy I’d arrived at night and the gross streets of wetness and dirt slime were somewhat camouflaged in the night. It was in the revealing light of morning that we had realized how disorganized and convoluted the city actually was. We hadn’t even had the patience to walk out-we’d taken a bus.
Now Mayra, Javier, Francisco and I were arriving, and I felt like leaving. “The city is horrible,” I’d said to Mayra. “I’ll be the judge of that,” she’d assured me. But she didn’t even need a second’s glance to come to accordance with my warning. “It’s disgusting, you can’t even breathe the air,” she said. Javier and Francisco agreed, and my friends, there is no way I can sugarcoat this unfortunate urban conglomeration.
The sun had disappeared some time before. I felt a cold glass in my hand, but my eyes were having trouble focusing on its yellowish liquid. Beer. I brought the small glass to my lips and took the rim between them, letting the flow of sizzling Pilsner surprise and then settle behind my teeth. Noises echoed off shelves of cleaning products in the small dispensary, and Francisco’s friend looked at me with bloodshot eyes saying something in Quechua.
“It’s not Quechua,” said Francisco. “It’s Aymara.” I couldn’t tell the difference. Damn it all I couldn’t even learn a word, but not for lack of potential but for lack of motivation. Where am I going to use Aymara? But someone must learn it!
I handed the bloodshot eyes my glass, and he filled it from the bottle before passing it on to Francisco. Javier was to my left, and Mayra was quietly smiling to my right. I was in a circle of beer once more, like in Puerto Ilo. Fill the glass, pass the bottle, drink the glass, pass the glass. And no women. Despite Mayra being there, it was clear we were partaking of a macho custom.
Javier yelled and slapped his hand against his leg, the sound also echoing off greedy shelves of product. The jugs of liquid were for cleaning tile, but looked like daiquiri mix in my state. Perhaps that’s why I drank more. Between four of us, we’d already gone through a case of beer, which means 12 liter bottles of brew. Everything was spinning.
The truckers had decided to pay a hotel room for Mayra and I. Mayra saw the goodness, and I did too, but I also saw their assumptions, which weren’t altogether unfounded what with me lost in a state of drunk as profound. And for the second time in my life, I was drunk and staying in a hotel in Juliaca, as though that is the only way to survive a night of its worthlessness.
I should be fair to the people of Juliaca. At least it’s far from touristic. But it’s also hard to get your bearings, and you’re constantly walking down a street hoping for something prettier, or something lacking gritty air whose grime not only invaded your mouth and makes you wonder what the fuck you’re chewing, but that sticks to all the otherwise attractive street food. Fried chicken and chorizo, vegetable soups’ air wafting into nostrils already corrupted by dust, strange sacks of produce and grains that look cookable but damn it you don’t have a stove…
“How was your night?” Francisco asked from across the restaurant table. His eyes were more bloodshot that bloodshot’s.
“Francisco, man how late did you stay up?” I asked.
“Around 4.” I might’ve choked but we were still waiting for the food to come. 4 o’clock. How the hell to middle aged men handle it? I was kaput at 10.
“We slept really well, thanks so much Francisco,” Mayra said.
Bowls of mazamora were placed before us. I stole a glance at Mayra, who looked in dismay at the dish.
“It’s quinoa ground down to a liquid, and milk,” said Francisco. Strands of melting cheese also laid over the mush. It was indeed a mush. And it wasn’t the thing to be eating with a resaca hangover. Despite its appearance and its slimy texture, it tasted good. Mayra mostly toyed with it, and when I’d finished my bowl the local custom provided me with free seconds. I didn’t want a second bowl but one never says so to their benefactor, lest you should appear ungrateful and disrespectful.
We thanked Francisco for the desayuno, and like that, he walked off and into memory. We also wouldn’t see Javier again, nor bloodshot eyes.
2 sols and an hour bus ride later I found myself back in Puno, a slightly less disorganized and dirty city. Andina women walked by with their bowler hats and layered skirts, and shawls whose colors shone out under the peeking sun. Mayra and I made our way to the hospital where we searched uselessly for free yellow fever vaccination. The hospital was a one story complex of buildings connected by sidewalks. It was a simple mustard hue construction, and filled with people coming to get fixed in one way or another.
For the second time I found myself walking out of Puno. Sheep and llamas grazed in unlikely places. In front of an army clinic which also didn’t have vaccinations, in dirt alleyways whose central scar where rainwater escaped was also filled with modern society’s packaging waste. I cringe at garbage thrown about, but one cannot blame a people who don’t know otherwise. Throwing a wrapper to the ground is as normal as putting paper in a toilet… but they don’t do that in South America.
At the outskirts of Puno we hitchhiked a combi. It was a free ride that followed the road along Lago de Titicaca. Once we stopped and picked up a horde of schoolchildren to be dropped off here and there down the way. The sky was clear, and I saw that the blue water reflected in Mayra’s chocolaty eyes. Sometimes she’d look at me and smile. Other times I just watched her watch the world.
Hours passed and we were walking into Yunguyo, the last town before the border with Bolivia. A motorcycle with a pick-up bed took us for a ride and I watched Mayra’s exhilaration at the opportunity-a first for her. I like to watch her. Her excitement at this newness seems to give me new appreciation for a form of travel that has become second nature to me.
In Yunguyo, a small town, Mayra asked at a restaurant for food worth 4 sols. We were served lomo saltado and sevado. The woman’s wrinkled hands shook slightly, but her cracking lips stretched back to show her delight to serve us was what we did not deserve, but which we ate with as much humility and gratitude as could be mustered.
At the border Mayra was surprised to see so many white people.
“Where did they all come from?”
“Buses. They’re always hidden in buses.”
Stamping out of Peru was quick, and we summited the hill to cross into Bolivia under a stone archway. The buildings were different on the other side. They were architecturally more creative than in Peru, and Mayra took note as well. In the small immigration office I felt deja-vu as we were outnumbered by the agents 8 to 2. They cracked jokes and asked Mayra in things in Spanish that they purposely mumbled in order to hide from me.
“Where did you pick up the gringo?” they asked.
“I went after her,” I interrupted. What a surprise.
135 dollars was hard to give up, and the border here would be easy to simply walk across. I would learn that there are no checkpoints further on like I’d suspected 5 months previous. So it goes.
I had my Bolivian visa, the money for which I’d made so many months beforehand at the McDonald’s of Arica, Chile. I needed the visa. I would not be coming back to Peru. I had 90 days. I had 5 years.
We hopped a bus to ride 5 of 8 kilometers toward Copacabana. The bus stopped where there was a “paro”, 10 women blocking the road to protest something. I suppose protests happen often in Bolivia. It would become a theme of sorts for the next week or so. From the paro we walked to Copacabana in the dead of night. The tourist bus passed us and wide-eyed white faces peered out at this queer pair of backpackers hiking at the edge of the pavement. It was chilly but not cold, though for Mayra the chill was the cold. Her home of Lima tends to remain warm, hot or cool.
Titicaca’s waves sparkled under a halogen moon. Eventually we were in Copacabana, one of Bolivia’s prime tourist hotspots. A small town, and built on a sloping hill, whose main street descends to the docks where dozens of boats bob up and down diligently awaiting morning when their motors would roar and steam people out to the nearby “Isla del sol” and “Isla de la Luna”.
We walked down the main street. Tourism. Design restaurants. Tour offices. “La Paz – Uyuni – Tours!” Every tour office selling the same. Artisans in the street, some local but most probably Argentinian. Internet cafes whose prices were triple those in Yunguyo. Everything a product. Everything a calculated image meant to present the image authenticity.
“The only thing I like about these kinds of places,” I said to Mayra, “is that they draw a young crowd of travelers. Tourists, but travelers in their own right.”
“There are so many artisans,” she replied.
“Yea. They’re good travelers. The only thing that’s unfortunate about being an artisan is that to make money places like these are your best bet.”
At “La Posta” pizzeria I asked for Naira. They told me to follow the waterfront road until the last light. Mayra and I found a restaurant willing to give us a cheap meal of rice, fried eggs and French fries, and then we began walking into the darkness.
Mayra was busy washing dishes the next morning after Naira had invited us to a simple meal. The previous night we’d walked the long dirt road to the last light, and took Naira by surprise by arriving out of the darkness. She lived alone in a concrete house with Spanish windows and a palapa outdoor kitchen area that would fit perfectly as a tropical bar on a rowdy Goa beach. Vines bearing passion fruit wrapped around an archway that hung over stone stairs leading to the outdoor bathrooms. We took electric showers. If your scalp gets too close to the showerhead you can feel the electric current. Inside the house Naira had decorated in the style so common of the new age artist born-again clairvoyant. Billowing tapestries of tie dye and confusing designs hide the water damaged ceiling. Incense burned somewhere and there was strange complicated art hung all about. Down a flight of stairs there was a large studio with high ceilings and decorated likewise. The aqua marine walls were right for the space.
Naira was a friend of Andres, our Venezuelan friend who spent so much time causing havoc with us in The House of No Ends. When I spoke with Naira about Andres, I knew that they’d been lovers.
“He would just strum his guitar out on the dock, and tell me how much he loved it here,” she said. “He was a really spiritual and good person, so open.”
Mayra also fell in love with Naira’s home and the surrounds. Following the crescent dirt road from Copacabana, we’d come to the last light. In the morning she saw the glorious bounty of nature that can send shivers down a spine or hiccups into the lungs. The road hugged the lake closely, and Naira’s house was situated along the lakefront just beside a eco-hotel/hostel/volunteer place, in perfect view of Copacabana and its Calvario hill. The blue of Titicaca was a powerful color, and once sitting on the dock watching the sun sink below the horizon and throwing jets of orange against long canvas of cloud, I watched tears form in Mayra’s eyes. She told me she felt grateful, and I kissed her.
We spent 3 days in Naira’s home. We cooked vegetarian meals for her after wandering the streets of Copacabana and deciding that despite its expansive and beautiful sanctuary, and despite the pleasant streets, we wanted to relax at the house in her hammock on or the dock, where I could skip rocks and impress.
Before returning to the house we found the “comedor popular”, which was surprisingly tourist-less. Inside women in white knit berets and full sky blue aprons prepared meals costing 7 Bolivianos. Men were hunched over their bowls of soup or plates of meat and rice. They wore wool garments of earthly colors, soiled black overalls and had wide brimmed hats. Their hands were big, and so were their chests-probably because of living all their lives at 3500 meters of altitude. Sometimes I would lose my breath. And my lips were already chapped and gridded. I didn’t mind.
The people were good to us there. Mayra spoke with a campesino who took a liking to her. When a foreigner finally showed up I busied myself watching him. He was so unsure. First he snapped a few photos, quickly hiding the camera at his side at intervals. At once he stared directly at me for a moment, apparently deciding that where we were eating must be safe. He sat down across the kitchen area from me. When the woman served him his food he had the camera in her face and must have taken a dozen photos of her. He also took a photo of the food, and then with a napkin or piece of paper dabbed the oil from his fish, which, if he didn’t like oil shouldn’t have ordered fried fish.
Also before returning to the house Mayra stayed in town as I climbed the Cerro Calvario. At the top there were burnt out black silt covered alters filled with the multicolored melted wax of candles. The summit was built of stone, which was so dark such as to give the area a decidedly sacrificial aura. During Semana Santa devout men reenact Jesus’ crucifixion here. I’d seen it on some television program. They carry crosses up this steep, rocky lane flanked the whole way by crosses to mark the Stations of the Cross. At the top they’re tied to the cross and hoisted to the sun. I wonder if later, the men discuss tactics… “you have to make sure that you drag the end of the cross over the largest rocks, so that you don’t have to haul it over more rocks than necessary,” he takes a drink of his beer. And another says “Yea, and best to switch shoulders as you go.” Beer. The irony of discussing something that should only happen once.
At the house, conversations were bizarre. We spoke at length about the San Pedro cactus. Naira calls it a medicine while I call it a trip… and oh I loved to remember tripping in the House of No Ends. But yes, how interesting how world views can affect our perception of the same thing. And not only that, but when we talked about Reiki hands or the recent shifting eras and changing signs of the Zodiac such that now you are one sign below what you previously were… such that I am no longer Libra but rather Virgo… such that if you had created an identity around your sign, that if you had pride, to hell with it; forget it now! Now it’s the age of Aquarius, apparently. Oh but when we talked about these things I thought how different I am from her, that it doesn’t matter if I believe such things or not, but it matters that it doesn’t interest me at all, and religion and pressure and who is right and who wants others to believe what they believe, and missionaries. Are there hippy missionaries? And Lucas said hippies are fascists for extolling their beliefs and patronizing others and fuck it I don’t give a damn. At least it’s all so interesting to try and grok.
I had a long dream of beautiful redhead vampires who were frightened when they saw me, and I woke to find that what I’d written down in the night was an inquiry of “who has ever had sex over Coca-Cola?” Mayra was asleep. I craned my neck at the wall. The wall had art; naked women, and images of something like Ivanhoe. Why do we seek to complicate our lives with explanations and hypotheses?, I thought.
“They say Titicaca is where God becomes visible,” said Naira the morning that Mayra and I would leave. I cooked a wet rice dish of fried tomatoes and carrots in curry. Mayra said it was good and I had my ego boost for the day. Lucky for us, the owners of Naira’s property were heading to La Paz, the Bolivian capital some 4 hours away. Hitchhiking to La Paz from Copacabana would otherwise be a slow venture, since the main transit route for big rigs is via Desaguadero, where I’d previously tried to cross, and since Copacabana was a small town at the end of this less frequented road. Hitchhiking in Bolivia is said to be difficult for lack of private cars, but anyone who says they don’t bother hitchhiking in Bolivia because buses are so cheap are forgetting why they should want to hitchhike in the first place. So it is.
Copacabana fell behind us as we wound around the bending road up and over surrounding hills. We arrived to San Pablo de Ticina, where large wooden platform boats act as ferries to cross part of the lake. We waited for 40 minutes, and I watched the tourists buy lots of foodstuffs from the stores, whose men working the ferries intentionally delay the boarding process so that the tourists drop green in the women’s stores.
Finally we boarded a platform, our car along with a bus. I looked out and saw many wooden ferry platforms crossing the stretch of water at once, and it looked like we were partaking in an invasion of the opposite shore. I was even expecting high vertical shoots of water to splash up were artillery shells missed by a hair. The disorganization was incredible, our floating platform of questionable wood ramming into others and the men’s efforts to control the momentum of each with long sticks like Venetian gondoliers really quite useless. But somehow it all came together and the jumble of loaded boats found their debarking points.
Onward we drove over the highlands through two hail storms. Country people hid under layers of shawls, but the cows didn’t mind the pelting. Later we passed highway workers and I saw women shoveling gravel. Elsewhere in Latin America highway worker women handle the signage, but here goddamn they have true grit.
As we came into the beginnings of La Paz I saw spray painted warnings of “Ladrones seran quemados vivos-Thieves will be burned alive.” As we got closer to the city the warnings transformed into human effigies hung from telephone poles with a panel warning of a similar fate.
“This is El Alto,” said our benefactor. “A million people up here, and then a million more down in the main part of La Paz.”
El Alto was the altiplano beginnings of La Paz, a town which we’d learn later was tucked into several grand mountainous valleys, giving a dramatic and atmospheric image to the world’s highest capital city. In the meantime, we had to get through El Alto.
It seemed appropriate that it would be here, in the poorer areas of the city, that we’d experience another “paro”, or roadblock. This time, the main road was blocked by a grand total of 35 people. We followed a long line of other cars that had turned off into the convolution of dirt streets steep and deeply grooved by weeks of ceaseless rain. The buildings were all humble and made of uniform orange brick. We bumped along taking turns here and there to circumvent the main roadblock. Unfortunately the protesters sent squads of themselves to try to block traffic’s attempts. At one point we watched as two men pulled large stones in front of a trucker, who promptly climbed down from the cab quietly and pushed the rocks aside.
Eventually we came to a grand mess. Cars all trying to get around the main roadblock somewhere north of where we were had converged from many directions at what seemed to be the ony crossing of a small river of sorts, itself grandly colored brown degrade. A protesting family was all there was to block hundreds of cars. We waited. After a time someone finally convinced them to move aside to let some cars through.
“If we don’t respect the protesters they throw stones to break our windshields,” our driver said.
Finally we crossed the river and the car engine hummed loudly as it struggled up and out of the gorge. And we were underway.
“One thing I don’t see is shantytowns. Where are all the makeshift houses of plastic and sheet metal and whatever else people can find?” I asked.
“Ah, yes, we don’t have that here. The people work. We Bolivians, we work. Everyone has their casita here or if not then in the village they come from. Lots of beggars here. You’ll see groups of women begging. They have their homes, you know, they just come to the city to beg for a few weeks then go back.”
No shantytowns. Bolivia is considered the poorest country on the continent but the capital was empty of the same peripheral mess that almost all other Latin American capital cities had. Strange, I thought.
Finally we reached the rim of La Paz, where a fabulous descent of tightly wound paved roads brought us down into the bosom of La Paz. In the distance was the beast white capped volcano Illimani, sitting like a guardian over the valley. Mayra and I commented on the extreme geography of La Paz, and by the time we were wishing our benefactors well, pulling our things from the car, we had submitted to the grandeur of the city. “Peace”.
We had a place to stay in La Paz, with one Sergio.
First we ate a 5 Boliviano meal of rice, suspect salad and milanesa. Then we walked down, down down a long steep hill to the Plaza del Estudiante, where the city’s main Prado Avenue ends. I dropped my pack and sat on it. Mayra kept an eye out for Sergio, who would come to meet us.
The main placard advert of this plaza was a large billboard atop one of the buildings. It was for Sofia meats, and featured an indigenous women smiling. Finally, some representative advertising, unlike Lima and Mexico where the public sphere is saturated with white people. And you don’t see many of those.
Mayra seemed determined to compare this, her first foreign capital city, with Lima. She sought to remark on things that made Lima better. Things like “I miss wide avenues, here, there’s no space.” La Paz’s tight streets squeeze traffic to a standstill, true, and later we’d learn that protests were commonplace and often brought the city to a halt.
I looked around and saw cholitas everywhere. The term refers to indigenous women, those with shawls and bulging skirts, bowler hats and usually heavy set physiques. I’d learn later that they’re not always conservative, but that in El Alto that have a sort of Cholita UFC where a pair go at each other in vicious competition to win cash. So it goes.
“Mayra,” I said, “Andean women in Lima, when I saw them, always seemed out of place, like they were just visiting. Here, Andean women are in their element. This is their turf.”
“It’s true. Anyway Bolivia is mostly indigenous,” she replied.
Here and there we’d see photos of Evo Morales, the country’s president. Sergio would later tell me all about how he came to power.
“Is he from money?” I will ask.
“No,” Sergio will respond, “he is populist.”
I learned that before Evo, who enjoys such popularity that he controls 2 thirds of congress and can make whatever law he wants, and who also enjoys T-shirt exposure like “Evo-lucion”, came to power after a few other failed presidents had followed a gringo president who was forced into exile.
“It was 2003 when the Lozada increased gas prices. Evo was the head of some unions that represented the people who couldn’t afford the price hike. The military was protecting the presidential palace and the police the people, I guess. The police and army clashed. You didn’t know about this?” Sergio asked.
“Hmm, 2003. I was still somewhat isolated from the international world back then,” I said.
Sergio would show Mayra and I bullet holes in a building in the main plaza Murillo where the fighting took place.
“Damn,” I said, “I’ve never seen so many pigeons in my life.” And there they danced the dance of avian courtship.
“150 people died. There were some so-so presidents after Lozada was exiled in the US. I guess he’s some kind of professor now, and they won’t extradite him. Anyway Evo hates gringos so relations haven’t been good. Evo came to power eventually. He’s done a lot of good stuff, like what you mentioned about reflective advertisement; that was him. But there are a lot of bad laws too. You know what they say; the three worst things about South America are Chilean women, Peruvian men and Bolivian laws,” said Sergio.
When we arrived to Sergio’s house, an apartment on the 13th floor of a building in the neighborhood aptly called “Miraflores”, I admired the view over the city. La Paz is surprisingly colorful, and somehow we’d arrived during a spell of sunny days. I looked at Mayra and I could see her happiness. A sensitive girl, she wears emotions on her sleeve, which is proverbially never rolled up.
“This is my mother Belma,” said Sergio. I kissed in greeting his mother, whose small eyes blinked forcefully and she smiled. “This is my father Jorge.” Jorge took my hand and shook it with a sure strength, then kissed Mayra. We thanked them for having us in their home, in which they showed us to our room-their daughter’s, who was in LA as a missionary of their Korean-based church.
Mayra and I hadn’t expected the family. We had little idea of their kindness, which they showed without hesitation. Five days went by quickly, and we lost count of their generosity. Every morning we took tea with breakfast. We learned about the local saltenas, an empanada-like food stuffed with meat or chicken; you know it’s meat if the ridge is on the top. They took us to a cafe where we tried the hot purple corn-based api drink and cheese torta. One day they took us to a chicharron restaurant where our mouths watered over the fricase pork soup of yellow aji and garlic and wrapped boiled skin over fried pieces of meat and mote corn kernels. Jorge, a retired army officer, also loved to cook and made us traditional Bolivian plates like paseno; fried cheese, beans, and corn cob. We visited one day the southern part of the city where they paid our entry to a hiking trail through tall eroded pinacles of earth called the Valle de la Luna, vaguely reminiscent of Chile’s Valle de la Luna. Afterward we tried La Paz’s famous cinnamon ice cream, whose violet color seems impossibly vibrant. Another day Jorge cooked chorrizo,and every evening we also took lonche, as they call a simple dinner of bread, cheese and coffee.
Sergio took us around town, and despite our insistence to pay our way, he would have none of it. We saw the main cathedral, where inside the speaker sounded drunk-perhaps too much blood. Then again the altitude sometimes causes our breath to dwindle. Even kissing would fatigue.
On the touristy “Witches Market” street we found women selling San Pedro, which before bargaining cost a mere 10 Bolivianos. Around the corner there were dozens of barbershops. Sergio told us a haircut was cheaper if you opted not to use a mirror-my kind of gig. Then we found the main modern market, a multilevel open air building lined with stalls. At a book stall the women sat stuffed among so many interesting spines, but reading tabloids. So it goes.
Later we wandered into the national football (soccer) stadium at the end of a match. “Here,” Sergio said, “families can come to matches. No pasa nada. Tranquilo. Unlike other countries craziness and pelea.” Mayra agreed, saying that Peruvian football games were hectic. Here, cholitas came with their babies. Outside the stadium the masses filed away into the spider side streets calmly, collectively. The regular paraphernalia was there; fired meats being sold, light blue anything to represent “Bolivar” team, etc. There were kids sitting on their knees singing the team’s song and hoping for some coins. There were chicharron sandwiches.
Belma worked full time, and so did Sergio. Jorge was retired, and busied himself in the house, organizing ticket stubs or browsing facebook on an iPad. Their wealth and humility were often themes of conversation between Jorge and Mayra and I. We would mostly listen to him, and only sparingly gave opinions of our own.
The man is slightly balding. He speaks through cascading teeth and a wide mouth with wet lips. Behind a shield of lenses his eyes looked out honestly and determined. Sometimes it was about the church, or about God. Other times it was just about the goodness of people.
“This is all material. This-” he held up the iPad, “-this is just material. I had difficult childhood. A difficult one. Sergio has everything now, but he has travelled. He got out and left, and Belma and I we let him. Now he’s back and he’s a better man for it. He learned, he opened his mind to new things.” He took a sip of coffee, an instant brand imported from Brazil and written as the best seleção, dropped nasal at the end.
“For that I respect what you guys are doing. Travelling by hitchhiking around. You are open to any kind of person, any kind of person. And who knows maybe someone will pass you and later they’ll need your help and you’ll help them because you are good. Maybe that will happen.
“As a young person I didn’t want to study. But my brother helped me. We didn’t live with my parents but with my grandparents. My older brother, he was a military man. I wanted nothing to do with it. Study, nooo. NO. But one day my brother took an exam in my name to get me into the military college, and there it was, I was in. And they put me straight. Slowly, slowly I began to get paid. I was already in love with Belma, and she worked and made sometimes three times as much as I did-but she never said it, and we stayed together.
“When the kids came along I was stationed somewhere at the border. It was cold. One night, I remember, a tank was stuck in the mud and we had to haul it out. June. It was cold, so cold. All we had were two cigarettes.” Jorge laughed and licked the sharp of his teeth. “But the army was good for me, even though I didn’t want it.”
I remember one day I was sewing a patch onto my shirt at the kitchen table. Jorge was steaming chorrizo in a pan. Mayra was reading beside me. They began to talk and I only half listened.
“…but that’s the problem in Lima, right? Delinquents. Thieves. Here too. Did you see the warnings in El Alto? No, no no no, the gente don’t accept thievery. They burn thieves alive. Thi day and age young people have too much freedom. Not enough discipline. I’m a military man, and I believe in mano duro, hard-handed lessons,” said Jorge. Mayra nodded and had a look of consternation.
Jorge made the gest of a gun shooting. “That’s what they have to do to thieves and criminals. Who needs them? They should simply be shot. That’s how society will progress… no thieves, no fear.”
When one afternoon Mayra and I were taking tea with Jorge, I looked at him and realized that his mannerisms, his voice and damn it even his background and the things we were talking about made him, in my mind, the Bolivian Marlon Brando Coronel Kurtz. But here there was no heart of darkness, only a good heart with a multitude of contradictions.
“I love this hospitality exchange,” he told us. “We are the Bolivian parents of French, Danish and Portuguese guests. They stayed for almost a month! They stayed for Christmas and New Year. It was really wonderful, we played with hugged each other we cooked. It really shows you new worlds. And you know, I come from a humble background. As a child I ate lettuce and tomatoes from the farm for lunch. I traded shoes for toys. Sometimes I would just peer into restaurants,” his words were always accompanied by gestures, like this one where he appeared to be against the window looking in at customers eating plates of food. “We couldn’t afford any of that. On one of our birthdays our grandmother would buy us an empanada and we’d walk in the park, but that was it.” He motioned to his surrounds. “Look what there is not. Material. We came up, it’s true, but we can’t look at a person poor and begging with eyes that say ‘look what we have’, no. No, we were there. They are a person, and perhaps they’re good.
“In the Bible there’s a story of a man leaving Catholic mass only to be mugged and beaten to within the limits of his life just outside. The priest passes without helping. Another person passes by. But when the Samaritan comes, he takes the man to find help and even pays for the stay to recuperate. This is the goodness that we try to remember that we owe.” His words would have me reflecting later, lying in bed with Mayra and discussing the conversations.
“He makes you want to do good, doesn’t he?” I asked her.
She smiled her innocence and said “Yes, really. We should carry around a bag of sweets or something to give to kids. At least that’s something.”
“At least. And not money. I hate relationships created with money. Yea it makes the world go ’round with this system, but if between you and another person all there is is the giving of money or exchanging of goods or services for money, then you are nothing but a dollar sign. Hell that reminds me that I read this thing online where a French hitchhiker asked for information on crossing the Darien Gap and some cruiser replied that the French needs to get over himself, that he should pay like anyone else. The cruiser even said that the hitchhiker was full of shit when he wrote that hitchhiking brings you closer to the locals. The cruiser wrote ‘you think you need to hitchhike to know locals?'” I said.
“Yea?” asked Mayra.
“Well no you don’t, but hitchhiking is a hell of a lot better than floating up in your $50,000 sailboat to dock in the exclusive marina where the only locals you talk with are the ones hoping you’ll tip them for helping out. That fucking cruiser knows nothing about real travel. And whether people like it or not, hitchhiking is a fuck load more real than flying or boating.”
“It’s alright, I agree,” said Mayra. “Just take it easy.”
“Is there a paro today?” Mayra asked Jorge as she sat on the sofa next to him. The television had Kindergarten Cop on. Arnold’s dubbed voice was Spanish, but they also translated the robotic way of his Austrian accent. No one was watching it.
“There’s always a strike or a protest or something. The Bolivian is lazy. That’s why I like the States, because Americans are punctual. They’re organized and follow the law,” replied Jorge. I had kept my mouth shut about the false return ticket from Brazil that I’d fabricated to submit at the consulate, hoping for the visa (and if they found out the ticket was fake I’d lose my $140 processing fee). I don’t think Jorge would have liked it.
Later on we were at the table and cloud cover made the room dark. The orange light painted Jorge’s face in shadows, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me from behind those blurred glasses. I was reminded of Martin Sheen Capt. Willard listening to Kurtz’ monologue in the darkness, with a rave of tribal sacrifice pounding in the jungle outside. He was speaking of the perfect solider.
“And as a military man I saw a lot of horrid things,” said Jorge. “I saw so much death, so much death. It was difficult, and sometimes you just didn’t know what to do, but you did what you were trained to do. Sometimes the protests got so out of hand that when the mob got closer we’d hear ‘FIRE!’, and we did. Four or five people would fall dead to the ground, and that’d scare off the rest. They’d run away. That’s the way it has to be done. Crowds of miners are no easy things to deal with. You have to kill. We had to fire on them.
“And the curious ones always fell. A protest marching on army soldiers meant stay inside, don’t peek out your window.” Jorge gestured a rifle shot to a second story. “BAM! and he’s dead. No, no no no, you can’t be curious like that.
“Nowadays I don’t go out. I had friends who died or were scarred somehow. Sure go out in full riot gear, but just like this,” he gestured over himself, “not in your life! It’s dangerous. And a soldier ought to know to respect his military superiors.”
I asked Jorge about the Bolivian coups in the past, in the 80s.
“To hell with the generals, they know nothing about the field. They’re sometimes so entangled in politics that they forget their structure. No, it’s the coronels that’d plot and carry out the coups. ‘You take your soldiers at this time to this spot and you stop the police and traffic there,’ ‘you bring your tanks to the center square and you fire on the palace.’ It was like that. That’s what it was like. The coronels.”
Sometimes Jorge spoke like a Christian, which would prove all his kindness to Mayra and I. But when we spoke of the military and control he’d speak of killing as though it was business and nothing personal, something the Godfather might exclaim. How appropriate. This was a church man. He was a military man and a good father. In our own lives we can all be good, but in the public arena our opinions shape our reputations. Jorge is good, but I just wanted to suggest that one of the fallen protesters might be me, or Sergio or Mayra, and are we worth the tactic of dispersal?
“Yes, Che Guevara. That was in La Higuera. No one wanted to kill him. No one wanted to,” Jorge said, hunched over his coffee inhaling the aromas. “Che. Argentinian. I know the solider who shot him. BANG! Right in the throat. They say my friend was drunk. You know, nowadays the man’s a saint in that town. There’s a famous photo of him dead and under examination, and they say it looks like a famous painting. The villagers thought he looked like Jesus, can you believe it? I guess he might have.”
I smiled and sipped from the mug. Cinnamon tea with two spoons of sugar, an ardent treat that made its way down my throat to warm me calm. Jorge’s voice seemed to reverberate in my head, the slightly nasal suggestion melding with memories of Brando’s and confusing images of the two men. Bolivian Marlon Brando. Jorge our benefactor, a kind person with strange hypocrisies. But who’s right? Who is ever right, and what did that ever mean?
The day finally came that Mayra and I would get back on the road. That’s today. First I go to search for my Brazilian visa, if indeed they’ve decided to award me it. I was nervous after having watched the Bolivian film “American Visa,” the story of a man trying to get the American visa, acted by two Mexicans. “That’s how it is here in Bolivia,” Sergio had told me, “the movies are usually by foreign filmmakers with foreign actors who learn the Bolivian accent.” We had also watched “Escribeme Postales a Cobacabana”, another foreign made Bolivian film that actually had Naira’s house featured in it. A good way to reminisce on those times.
“Take these, it’s cold in Oruru,” said Belma as she handed Mayra and me each a sweater.
“And this,” Jorge said, holding out a U.S. military sleeping pad, “is for you Mayra.”
She was surprised, “thank you! It’s so kind of you thank you thank you.” And so she had the final necessary item, a sleeping mat.
Now it’s the road. I will post this, and in and hour I’ll walk back to the Brazilian consulate to see about my passport. Then Mayra and I will board a minibus to El Alto and throw our thumbs direction Oruru. Who knows if that’s really where we’re going.