I can no longer swing my umbrella; it is broken. The weak plastic of the curved handle finally snapped. Also, the zipper of the external pouch of my backpack is busted. The zipper on my hoodie is broken as well. I also lost one of my sandals.
The timing of these failing items is like some planned culmination of wear and tear. It all has happened at once, and makes me think sometimes that my gear is coercing and conspiring against me. Or maybe it’s just that physical objects are joining the ranks of everything else that is trying to stop me from continuing south. Sometimes I’m trying to stop me.
Cusco might be a pretty city, but something about our time in it made the fact that we had no personal connections there all the more obvious. Sammy and I wanted out. We decided we would travel together until the lake, the Titicaca one. From there, I’d continue to the border with Bolivia to renew my Peruvian visa, and Sammy would head to Arequipa.
A bus and a walk brought us the hour to the fringe of Cusco. San Jeronimo or some other equally syllabled named. Not long passed before two friendly guys picked us up and we packed into the cab all four of us; apparently riding in the open back is illegal around Cusco.
We passed a few ruins, were let out, got a ride with a dirt truck to nowhere, walked, and got a ride in a pick-up to Urcos. Sammy squinted toward the sky, “they have a big white Jesus too.”
Up on the hill was a giant white statue of Jesus whose posture made him look like a merry Buddha. Then, it was like a coincidental joke when we both drank separate bags of nasty chicha water, Sammy remarking that his, “tastes like smoke.”
We walked down and out of the town, shoving our thumbs out at passing trucks. I thought Saturday was a stupid day to travel, but I’d be proven wrong. Suddenly one of our thumbs hooked a ride. The trucker’s name was Mario.
“Don’t worry, with me, you guys’ll get to Juliaca fast,” he assured us.
We all partook in the customary who, what, where, why, and when conversation. This was Sammy’s first big rig hitch, and Mario was about to fill all the prereqs and then some for a good trucker experience.
“Look at this arm,” he told us. His thumbs were noticeably lame, so there was clearly something amiss. “You see this arm? This is the only bionic arm in South America.”
Mario proceeded to tell us the story of how he was in a crash 4 years back, wherein he almost died, and had to physically recover on his own. He also regaled us with stories about the nurse who tried to kill him on behalf of the other trucker who didn’t want Mario bringing legal action once he was well again. Mario explained that the accident helped him to realize a few things, which in turn gave him the drive to help others, like hitchhikers.
“The way I see it, this vehicle is empty and I’m heading in that direction. If you’re there on the side of the road and you wanna go that way, why shouldn’t I help?”
“Last time I picked up some hitchhikers was oh, about three months back. Young Colombian couple.”
“Did one of them have a guitar?” I asked half-heartedly.
“Yea Nicolai had a guitar,” he replied.
“Nicolai! I know Nicolai! And Zulay too! They lived with me in Lima for a few weeks,” I said with surprise. Nicolai and Zulay, my Colombian friends.
“You know them?” Mario chuckled. “Innocent faces those ones. No way I wasn’t gonna pick em up. Be sure to tell them hello for me. Mario with the red rig and bionic arm.”
Mario drove us all the way to Juliaca. We arrived in the night after he had treated us to a cena a few towns back. Sammy and I dropped to the dirt and waved him off.
“Man, I’m glad you got to experience that. He gave us interesting conversation, he mentioned women with a gesture of shape, he championed Peru’s beer, and you got a free meal,” I said.
“Yea, I particularly liked the story about how he drank his own piss to lessen his blood-alcohol level.”
“That was a new one for me too,” I said.
We began walking toward the center, and quickly realized a truth about Juliaca, Peru. It’s a shithole. The sparse lighting seemed weak in air that was filled with dust shot up from the tires of passing vehicles. Plastic bottles and bags floated around, and the dirt sidewalk was rutted, making us trip in the dark.
We thought about walking across town to find the fire station, but neither of us liked wandering these streets so late; we opted for a hotel. In the wooden-floor room there was one bed with a faded leopard design blanket. I blew up my mattress and sat down. Sammy disappeared outside and returned with a bottle of coke. “Nothing like a little rum and coke,” he said.
And so began a night of heavy drinking. We had won the bottle of rum at the hostel pub quiz, somehow out-minding the rest (we were actually able to predict that one question would deal with the Mono Lisa before the game got going). Neither Sam nor I are big drinkers, but we were talking about important stuff, and important stuff gets talked about between men with booze.
In the morning we realized that we had finished the entire bottle between us. I threw up sometime during the night, and Sammy had yacked on the floor. After paying extra for the soiled sheet Sam threw over the vomit and the shower he took, we were back on the road. Lazy, hung over, and very bored of Juliaca, we jumped a combi for 3 soles to Puno.
“I threw up in the bus,” Sammy said after we got out an hour later. Puno looked gray. Gray might be a good word to describe the overall feeling of the day. We went to the market and ate a surprisingly shitty meal.
“Sammy, man… I’m hating everything and everyone right now.”
Sammy chuckled, but didn’t seem surprised.
“I hate the trash, man. Look at all the trash, it’s fucking everywhere. There are garbage cans all over the place too!” I hated on the trash, on the town, and a bit on the Andean women’s bowler hats.
After wasting our time walking out on Puno’s pier to see Lake Titicaca, we both decided we needed to leave. Sammy would jump a bus to Arequipa, and I’d continue toward Bolivia. We’d both be heading south, and decided we’d probably meet up later on.
“Alright man, I’ll see you down the line,” I said.
“Yup.” Sammy replied… always quick to the point.
And so it was that I once more found myself walking out of another city alone. I realized then how much I depended on my friend, and on these small adventures, to keep my mind occupied. Walking out of the decidedly uninteresting city, I let my mind wander back to Lima, back to chocolaty eyes.
Two pick-up rides took me well out of the city. Titicaca found colors far from the grays of Puno, with the giant alpine lake glistening blue. Artificial islands where the locals breed or trap fish looked like black holes close to shore. Max, a Bolivian trucker, picked me up and we zoomed around the curtain road until I asked him to let me out.
The sun was going down and I had spotted a secluded perch on a hill overlooking the lake, far from everything. Far from everything seemed right, it seemed appropriate. After walking through thousands of spiders’ webs, I pitched my tent on a hill with a perfect view. The lake stretched in both directions, and across the way I could see the pink slopes of Bolivian mountain ranges beaming in the weakening sunlight.
I prepared for a night as cold as La Oroya. Instead, the night’s surprise was a force of wind so powerful that I feared the shelter would fly away with me in it. The gusts came spontaneously, battering the sides of my tent with apparent anger.
At the crack of dawn the wind had subsided and I was admiring the blazing sun over the water. Gear packed, I spent some time throwing rocks into the lake. Later, a happy Peruvian trucker took me the thirty minutes more to Desaguadero, the main border with Bolivia. The trucker gave me the helpful information, “yes, you can cross the river downstream from the bridge, just ask for the 50 cent bote.”
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that half a year has passed since I arrived in Peru. So it goes.
The next step was Bolivia, and the plan had been in the making for some time. It was the 17th. My visa for Peru would run out on the 18th. My first order of business would be to renew my Peruvian visa. Why? Because I would not be entering Bolivia legally. For that to happen, I’d have to pay a 100 dollar entry fee that is levied on Americans alone (reciprocity for us charging them likewise; you might have guessed that I’m of the mind that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind). So, I’d renew my visa, and then simply walk across the border once I’d surveyed it.
Desaguadero did not help to calm my sudden dislike for the Andean tendency to chuck every piece of trash in the nearest source of water. The trucker let me out at a crossroads, his direction saying “Tacna”, mine “Bolivia”. I ate a quick breakfast of lomo saltado, and then stamped out of Peru at immigration.
There were two borders; this one, and another tourist-transited one at Copacabana. I decided that I might as well try to see if I couldn’t convince the Bolivians to let me in freely or to charge me a price that my instinctual reaction would tell me is workable.
The bridge was small and surprisingly dirty. No one checked my passport. I could have simply walked into the country no questions asked. However, I would need to return to Peru and get stamped back in there to be legal.
In the immigration office, which I had to search for, the Bolivians all stared at me as I gave a speech to the main officer about how the reciprocity charge was for the gringos with burnt pockets, that charging me 135 dollars was out of the question. I wanted to see Bolivia, learn about it, take something back for others to learn from. My speech fell on deaf ears, and the stone cold eyes of immigration officials coolly saw me leave the building, shoving my passport back into my pocket.
I decided that once back in Peru, I’d have to cross at the other border, now that these officers all knew me. I decided to walk around the Bolivian side of town before heading back, just in case this was the end of my Bolivian experience. After an hour of trying to find something different from Puno, I walked back across the bridge.
In the Peruvian immigration office I heard news that made my spine wring. Apparently, since I never entered Bolivia, I never truly left Peru. I had been under the impression that the bridge was like some kind of international non-land, a limbo where you were pleasantly paperless. Unfortunately I was wrong.
The Peruvian officials looked at me. “We’re going to have to cancel the exit stamp we’ve just given you,” they said. “This is a problem.”
“I still have a day to get out of the country.”
“According to your passport, you left. But since you didn’t enter Bolivia, you didn’t leave. This is illegal.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do? How is that illegal?”
The official motioned me to the side, away from the line of others. “We can solve this. 40 dollars and your problem is fixed.”
I stared unbelieving at the man. Was I to bribe this man just to get them to cancel a stamp that says I left a country when apparently I can’t leave one without entering another, despite the fact that I did? Hell no, I’d do no such thing! I’ll play to this guy’s national pride, which seems to plague everyone in the god damned world!
“I don’t have 40 dollars. I didn’t know they were going to charge me so much money to get in. Peru doesn’t charge me anything. Fucking Bolivians could learn a thing or two from Peru.”
He looked at me awkwardly and then spoke apart with the other officials.
The bigger guy handed me my passport. “Here you go. It’s that damn Evo Morales. He doesn’t understand anything. You have a day to leave the country, then you can come back in.”
And so it was. I walked out of the immigration office and looked back across at the mountainous country of Bolivia. My exposure was limited to the small border town. I had planned to “sneak” back in, which would have required me to walk across the bridge, but first I would need a few buffer months in Peru to get back here and still be legal. I want to be legal at least somewhere.
Unfortunately I later heard that ever since the border between Peru and Bolivia had been shut for over a month several months back, the Bolivian authorities had set up check-points down the road toward La Paz. My Bolivian mischief, if I still felt inclined, would have to be got via Chile.
The most immediate concern, though, was that I was a day away from overstaying my Peruvian visa. Back at the crossroads, I followed the unlikely road over a hill and down through the nothing town of Desaguadero, direction “Tacna”. No cars. No trucks. Just walking, alone and unsure. On the map the road doesn’t even exist… why is it paved?
Tacna, the last Peruvian city before Chile. Was a day enough, with a road as desolate as this one? The lack of traffic didn’t convince me, but I kept walking, stubbornly. The town was behind me and I could just make out a line of trucks cresting a hill up ahead. I came to the first one; Bolivian plates. Sergio, as it turned out, was going my way, and would be happy to take me along.
7 hours through dry nowheres, strange orange and red hills looking more like Mars than Earth. Sergio gave me all the Bolivianos (coins) he had for my collection. The landscape shifted from nowhere to somewhere unattractive and back to nowhere again. In 7 hours 2 cars passed in the opposite direction. And after 7 hours, I was wishing Sergio well.
It was Moquegua, and mine was a plate of rice and egg. The sun was disappearing behind the desert dunes. I walked down the road, my feet heavy and dragging. When I came to a PetrolPeru gas station, I let my pack slide from my shoulder. My shirt had been torn for some time, and I had sewn a pocket from a pair of pants on to the inside to block me skin.
The gas station attendant looked toward me. I might not have my glasses anymore, but I could tell his face was wrinkled. When he came over he smiled.
“Hey son, what’s you plan?”
“You need a place to stay?”
I looked up at him from where I was sitting. “I was actually going to ask you about a place to camp.”
He took me to a large open room on the first floor of the station house. There was a table, clean floor space and a light. I turned around right as he handed me a cold bottle of water. “Set up wherever you like, you can stay here until morning.”
I thanked him, and set up the laptop on the table for a bit of typing. When sleep tugged at my eyelids, I lay down and listened to Beirut, allowing myself to feel empty.
The cool desert mornings seem to sneak up on you. I left the gas station and walked to a decent spot on the road to hitch. A taxi pulled over.
“I don’t pay for transport, thanks anyway,” I told him and the others in the car.
“No worries, hop in. Going to Tacna?”
“Really? No charge?”
“Hop on in!”
I piled into the backseat, and the driver turned around to look at me with his black eyes.
“It’s 15 soles to Tacna.”
I got out of the car and slammed the door, the taxi pulled away.
Eventually a pick-up truck stopped and I jumped in. We spoke of Quechua and he rubbed the fingers of his free hand together, smelling whatever smell that created.
“I love language,” he said. “You speak Spanish well. Do you speak another language?”
“Well I can speak French,” I replied.
“I love French..” he mumbled some unintelligible words. “Ah the world!”
I felt the same way. We drove over a hill and a vast emptiness opened in the desert valley. A thin line of fog covered it all, and I thought briefly that we had reached the end of the world. I could see the other side, so this must be just some kind of spatial moat.
He let me out at a high plateau crossroads, gifting me a coke, two packets of Oreos, and two meat sandwiches. He went off down toward the mine. A copper mine. So, the mines of the Atacama begin here, I thought.
Another crossroads, where clusters of buildings have high hopes of being considered a town. I sat on my pack beyond a police control, hiding in the skinny shadow of a lamppost. An old man shuffled by with a wheel barrow. He squinted toward me and formed a broken tooth smile. I smiled back.
Camiara the place was called. It was like an unlikely hot and cold purgatory, where everyone seems to be waiting for something to happen. What’s going to happen? What’s ever going to happen? Heinlein would say that waiting is.
No luck for too long. The first stopped trucker I asked, however, agreed to take me. It was the 18th, and my visa would expire this very day. The cheerful trucker was a short trucker. He took me 3 hours down the road, past the convoluted city of Tacna, where he bought me one last Peruvian meal, and on to the border.
When I hopped to the pavement, he told me he’d pick me up and take me all the way back to Arequipa later in the day if I wanted. I wished him well.
The border was a flat desert outpost. I looked out and thought, now, this border would be easy to circumvent, why couldn’t it be here? I stamped out of Peru, the men very confused about how I arrived. It’s so rare for people to walk across the border. How the times have changed…
15 minutes later I arrived to where a Chilean flag was blowing in the desert gusts. The bald white immigration official reminded me of a happy child. He was friendly enough, and told me I had 3 months out of the calendar year to appreciate the country.
When I tried to begin the walk down the sandy road toward Arica, the first Chilean city, the police stopped me. “Mines,” they said, “booom!” Why the hell are there mines, I thought. (Pinochet)
Eventually a big rig of Peruvians decided to take me to the city. “They wouldn’t let me walk because it’s mined. Why is it mined?” I asked. “Because that’s the way Chileans are,” they said. Ah, I must be crossing a border; there’s hate!
And Peru was behind me. 6 months exactly. New friends, new adventures, new dreams and shattered dreams. The country was so large behind me, and I could almost feel its overbearing magnetism as I went further into Chile. Goodbye to it all! So it goes.
In Arica I walked in the direction of the center. Chilean flags blew in the wind all over the place. I passed three or four police stations, and a military base. Perhaps this is part of what Chile is about, I thought.
Walking, I felt eyes. Suddenly I wasn’t quite so abnormal, but here, I was rather dirty. The dust blew up into my face as I walked. My white skin burned in the high sun, and my feet sweated in their boots. I stole glances at passing Chileans. Their pastier skin, darker eyes and thinner hair already seemed quite distinct from Peruvians’. Of course, there are unique body types and faces everywhere, but the general feeling I got was something authentically other.
I found the terminal, and used the internet there. Then I found the center. Max the Bolivian had told me the Bolivian consulate in Arica should help me in some way to get into the country. When I found the consulate, I knocked on the metal door. A man who looked unfortunately just like Evo Morales answered the door. His face was blank, and his tie was shiny yellow. His answer was brusque, and when he closed the door once more, it seemed to sound a knell.
No. 135 dollars to enter Bolivia.
The streets in Arica are much more ordered than in Peru. Buildings are short and appeared to squeeze together. They’re colorful. I found the main street Veintiuno de Mayo, and it was tiled slick. A surfer town, or so it seemed, and I found the main square. A metal church designed by Gustave Eiffel was there. A giant hill overlooking the ocean was pinned with a large wallowing Chilean flag. I was very much in a new country.
Unfortunately I had no intention to do anything. I walked around. Soon I learned that bread and pate where the only way I could continue to eat dollar meals. Thankfully Chilean bread is far superior to Peruvian.
I sat on a bench. What the hell was I doing? I could go south and see the Atacama Desert, before heading further to see my friend Francisco with Sammy. Or I could go back to Peru. Back to Peru. The idea wrung my heart, and I decided it best to forgo seeing Arequipa, Peru’s third largest city. I just sat, my mind a blank. It was as though I was waiting for an idea to pop into my head that would excite my heart.
And then it happened. I ordered my thoughts, so as not to confuse myself. I had learned that the borders of Chile were completely mined by Pinochet. I had thought about following in the Modern Nomad’s footsteps by finding my way into the country via Chile, but I wanted to do something different, and I didn’t feel like juggling fate to see if I would also avoid the mines. (Yea man, you get to say that you walked through a mine field). My initial plan was to walk into the country, bum around and walk back. That plan wouldn’t work from Chile as the borders here were not as busy as between Bolivia and Peru. What to do…
My computer! That’s it, I know exactly what I was going to do! I was going to stay in Arica until I had the 135 dollars to pay the damn visa. As far as I was concerned, the 135 represented the border, nothing else. I would not think of this money as what else could I use it for, because the only reason I would have it in the first place would be for paying the visa. My spirits took flight then as I made up my mind. Writing work. 135 dollars’ worth. Done and done.
I was not worried about the time, since I had jumped forward a full two hours. Two hours more of sunlight did however catch me off guard. Where to sleep? I walked to the port. There, I met Andres.
Andres was the guard, sitting in a small cabin beside the main entrance. He came out to see me as I walked toward him. His bright blue hard helmet and highlighter vest didn’t go with his face.
“Hey, I have a few questions if you’re willing to spare a minute,” I said.
He had thin eyes and a large mouth, so his smile was quite wide.
“Of course, no problem my friend.”
“I was looking around here, and I was going to ask you if you were here all night, so I can camp next to the gate.”
“Ah, ah yes. Well, there is no guard from 11 to 3, but there’s always movement here. You can camp here I think.”
“Great, excellent,” I said. My excitement for my new decision seemed to attract his attention.
“What exactly are you doing? Where are you from?”
“Ahh, yes. The windy city.”
“Yea,” I said somewhat surprised that he knew.
“I’ve met a lot of foreigners. I used to be a tour guide.”
“I was going to say that you seem like an unlikely candidate for this job,” I replied.
“Ah yes,” he seemed to enjoy the phrase. “I am simply on hiatus. But I was national karate champion two years. It helps.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m 21,” he told me.
“Jovencito. I’m 24, well, 25 in two days.”
“Happy birthday in two days,” he congratulated me.
“Thanks. So, I guess I’ll camp here tonight, under that great big thing,” pointing at the giant cliff with the Chilean flag atop.
“Ah yes, do you know what that is here? It’s quite important,” he said. He smiled wide, those eyes sparkling from their hiding places. “That hill was one of the most strategically important hills in the War of the Pacific. Do you know about that war?”
“Yea,” I confirmed. “War over the mineral wealth of the desert.”
“Ah yes, yes yes. The Atacama Desert. Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper and Lithium, thanks to the gains from that war. And that hill there has a bloody history.”
He told me that the Chilean soldiers had spent days walking the surrounding hills to sneak up, in the night, on the Peruvian outpost. They attacked and took it over. Andres informed me that that permitted them to charge toward Lima, there to play occupier for three years, and also defeating Bolivia.
“Ah yes, yes Chile took Bolivia’s coastline this is true. But in the treaty we agreed to allow them free port services here in Arica, that is why you see so many Bolivian rigs here,” he said.
“I noticed that, I bet I could hitch a rig from right here!”
“Sure sure. Ah yes. We also, in the treaty that brought that war to a close, agreed to build a railway to La Paz. See that there? That’s the train station, now defunct. Us Chileans built that railway ourselves all the way to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.”
“Why isn’t it used?”
“Well because the Bolivians never maintained their side of the railway,” Andres replied.
“How unfortunate,” I thought, that might’ve been a fun hop.
We continued to talk into the evening. I shared my bread and pate, and Andres gave me a hot cup of coffee. He continued to explain things. I spoke of Chilean jargon, of the student protests in Santiago and the ones I saw here in the streets. He spoke of the port, of the great giant machines that pick up the containers and place them onto the rigs’ trailers. We spoke and spoke, until it was late, and his boss came and they closed the gate. I pitched my tent under the bright light beside the entrance, and swiftly let sleep take me.
In the morning I found the library, where I discovered I needed an adaptor for my computer. The adaptor cost less than a dollar, surprisingly. The man could’ve taken 4,000 pesos from me as long as I was concerned. (Ah yes, a new country… 510 Chilean pesos equals one dollar. So far, it seems 1800 pesos is a cheap meal, as opposed to Peru’s 3.5 soles).
I ended up at the local McDonalds, purchasing an ice cream for 290 pesos and sitting to their internet for the remainder of the day. A nice old man greeted me in English from across the room. I said hello back.
I spent many an hour writing for employers I had met on Freelancer.com who had regular work for me when I asked. I wrote about Prague, Moscow, Israel, Bali and Paris. I made 48 dollars from the day’s work.
That night I camped on a beach under the jutting rock.
Another day. I packed my tent and hauled the heavy pack to my shoulders. Orange buses zoomed by, and I noticed they had curtains. I had to remember I was in a new country. Women and men alike both wear more revealing clothing. Here, I’m no longer tall, only average.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. It was light, which meant it was late, around 10 am. I remember then… it’s my birthday! Alas, I have official lost my mind. 25 years. A quarter century. Maybe now I’ll begin to truly get stuck in my ways.
Andres was not at his post. I walked back to the McDonalds and bought another ice cream. Chilean youths goofed beside me. They had piercings in their noses and cheeks. Their hair looked glued on and their mannerisms inspired by their group dynamic. I decided it was a very unattractive style, and thus felt decidedly 25.
Inside on the net, I found that home had deposited 50 dollars into my account for my birthday. Unable to send me any kind of physical well-wishing, it would be money and a wish of splurge. I decided to buy a whole pizza and liter of coke.
The old man was in McDonald’s again.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” he said.
“Hello, how are you?”
“Hello, yes. Are you Swiss?”
I blinked. “No, I’m from Chicago.”
“Ah, America, yes!”
“Yea.” I felt the omnipresent anxiety of being unsure; I didn’t know quite how to act, but didn’t want to appear that way. I wanted to open up and allow the man to feel comfortable discussing with me. Perhaps it was his being unsure about me that made me feel unsure. In any case, it was something complicated.
“I enjoy America.” His English was very good, in fact. “I just wanted to know if you were Swiss, because your face reminds me of my son-in-law.”
“Ah, your son-in-law is Swiss?”
“Yes, yes. He was a traveler much like yourself,” I figured he didn’t mind my dirty clothes. “He glimpsed my daughter and she he. He came back to Arica every three months for 6 years! That’s a true story of love.”
“It sounds like a good one,” I said. I was thinking back to Lima, about Mayra.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I take your time.”
“Please don’t, it’s ok, but yes I will have to work.”
“What is it that you’re doing?”
“I’m trying to save some money to buy a Bolivian visa,” I said. “I write.”
“You write!” he exclaimed. “Writer—a, a writer! It is a lovely thing, to write.” His head was peppered with thinning white hairs. Wrinkles clumped around his cheeks and mouth, revealing his age. Hazel eyes looked at me from behind rimless spectacles.
“Well, I writing travel copy, not very interesting.”
“It is writing nonetheless. I write, you know. What is your name?”
“I’m Cale, and yours?”
“Cale, this is a strange name. I am Pedro Fernandez, poet.”
“You write poetry?”
“If you will permit me,” he said. His voice seemed to want to break, or crack into an echoing moan of some lamentable peril, but it didn’t. His speech shook, and sometimes his words did not come, or were lost somewhere, their intention never to be mouthed.
He took out a sheet of paper from his notebook, blue scribbles populating the page. He slid the sheet across the table in front of me. I read his poetry, which spoke of redemption, forgiveness and rightful paths. “I’m not so religious as my poem suggests.”
Then he read one of his poems. He struggled not to skip words, but some were lost. His voice gave a languid and yet sincere aspect to his oration, and he followed each line of the poem with his fingertip. I could hear the skin rubbing the paper as it moved. He must bite his fingernails, I thought.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Please, there’s no need to apologize, this interests me. I come from a family that cares about poetry,” I said.
“I lived in New York, you know. 13 years. There’s a church where we served food to the homeless, and ate for free ourselves. In 13 years I never cooked.”
His eyes were bright and he looked at me in earnest.
“I joined the group, we were a group of 6 or 7. We wrote poetry. I told them we had to do an anthology. An anthology of the church. One of ours eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.”
“Wow, the Pulitzer?”
“Yes, the book was called Frigier for the Soul. I had 12 poems in that anthology. Frigier, he won the prize, I think it was the Pulitzer. There was another teacher, a teacher of poety. Sharon Shapiro,” he chuckled, “oh, Sharon, she only wrote from the umbilicals to the knees.” We laughed.
“New York. I came back here 6 years ago. I was trapped.”
“What, trapped here? How?”
“Family of course. Oh I love my family, but this is not New York.”
“My father prefers New York to Chicago,” I said, hoping to sound supportive of our rival city.
“Yes. I was there, the twin towers.” He shuffled in his seat. “The port authority, the guys in green who do everything. I was there. The towers were on fire but I lived there, I was so near.”
Images of the September 11th new casts shot into my head.
“I was helping people,” he seemed to be carrying something heavy as he talked. “I was helping when I had to go. Something told me. I felt that they, that the towers were going to fall!”
“You felt that?” I asked.
“Something here, in the back of my head,” he touched his head. “It told me. I had the feeling. I left there, I have my family to think of. I survived because of that.” He reflected for a moment. “I miss New York. I have to go back one day and do something. Publish a book, just do something. I’m 75 years old.”
Pedro Fernandez gathered his notes into his old satchel, and we said goodbye.
The way of things always sees the interesting people off in a much swifter manner than we would like. How many stories that man must have…
I set up my laptop and learned that Gaddafi had been killed on my birthday. So it goes. I spent the day typing, and made another 54 dollars. 152 dollars. That’s enough for the Bolivian visa.
My mind raced around in circles trying to catch up with itself, still unsure if I really wanted to go to Bolivia or not. Wait, of course I do. Ever since Frank, the older bisexual man I stayed with in Puetro Angel, Mexico, had told me about his 2 year cocaine binge in La Paz and love affair with some young guy when he was still married, I thought it sounded like a place I should visit. Bizarre.
Another day, more work, another camp under the jutting rock. A Chilean meal of pollo sillao, chicken smothered in gluttonous soy sauce. I appreciated the side of salad dressed lightly. It seemed the place was decorated in accordance with Latin American norms. There was the quintessential fluorescent Jesus poster, a corner kitchen and a coca cola refrigerator. The floor was above standards. There were whiter people. That was it.
Later I met Rodrigo, a CS I’d contacted with high hopes. I hadn’t showered since Cusco. Rodrigo was a big 27 year old with a smile, and met me outside the McDonalds. He didn’t allow me to spend money on anything. The taxi took us to his apartment, where we met Alexei and Natalia, the Russian couple cooking pizza. They were somewhat crazy.
“I need take showers in strange places. It’s my goal. I have supermarket. Wouldn’t post office be best?”
His lack of articles and thick glottal accent made him all the more Russian. His head was large for the proportion of is body, and his one lazy eye gave his thunderous laugh an aspect of lunacy. Natalia was thin as a limb and giggled with her husband.
“I’ve showered in a fire station,” I said.
“You’re in! You join my couchsurfing group ‘extreme showers’!” replied Alexei.
Natalia and Alexei had been traveling for nearly two years as well. They had recently decided to begin hitchhiking in Cambodia. They’d made their way around Patagonia and northward by thumb. I shared the low-down on hitching in Peru and further north, and they regaled me with their stories of the chilly south.
Later Rodrigo, Alexei and I went back into town to follow Alexei around. He needed pot.
“You guys don’t understand. Some people are drug addicts, need things like alcohol, pot and cocaine. That’s me. It’s problem I tell you!”
Alexei was an extrovert, whose mind was very clearly displayed for you with all of his aggressively friendly mannerisms and tenacious determination to find his Mary Jane. We never found it, despite making several rain dance-like pleas to the god of dank. I didn’t mind.
At the apartment again everyone drank beer and I took that long-awaited shower. I liked to observe Alexei and Natalia; their humor was decidedly different from any other. They had both been robbed of everything in Salvador, Brazil, and since then haven’t recuperated their belongings, just a couple small bags of clothes. They warned me against hitchhiking in Brazil, and this opened a conversation of how your experiences can affect the way you see a place. They were robbed a further two times there.
“When were you robbed? In the night?”
“Well in evening, 10 o’clock.”
“Yea, you were walking around a big Brazilian city with your backpacks in the night. Man, come on, control yourselves!” I suggested.
They were nuts these two. They loved to drink or talk about drinking. Alexei, I realized, really was somewhat of a nocturnal alcoholic. He would drink 8 beers a night. Once he went out and came back an hour later to a worrying Natalia and a tired me. Rodrigo had gone to Peru for the evening.
“Natalia, I have cocaine,” he said.
She seemed hesitant at first, and I just sat on the bed watching them, unable to leave as I normally would in protest of the fucking stuff. She didn’t want to, but Alexei was the king of pressure, mumbling on in Russian about how this opportunity was an important one for her to branch out even more, and eventually they snorted it from the counter.
“…this is flour goddamnit!” exclaimed Alexei.
“Flour? Ha, they sold you flour?” Natalia smiled, her eyelids remaining ever low, which was somehow very Russian to me.
I walked over to the counter and tapped a bit of the powder on my tongue. In short notice it went numb.
“This is cocaine. You guys are gonna be up all night. Mind if I take your room in the back?”
And so it was, the pair whispered into the early hours of the morning and I fell asleep.
Sunday, for us, began around 3 in the afternoon. The sun had already risen to its superb height in the sky, glaring down on all the people like an overbearing reminder of the cosmos.
“Cosmonauts is what it is called, why do you not say cosmonaut? It is not this astronaut, because the cosmonaut was first!” Natalia was protesting.
“They both make sense. You know… the cosmos… or astro… that means heavens,” I replied.
Natalia threw her hands up, “Bah, this is not.”
“Prostitution is legal in States?” asked Alexei.
“Yea in some states. I ain’t into it. Fucking Russian bears.”
“Prostitution also not legal in Russia, but yes it is popular. The ministers always get caught. How much is prostitute in states?”
“Not so sure, what about in Russia?”
Natalia butted in, “oh you know, inflation, we never really know.”
That evening I went with Rodrigo to buy hamburgers and the fixings to make a good American meal for our Russians (and later a German). It was a bit more American than I’m used to, because we bought everything in frozen plastic bags. Rodrigo treated everyone to the meal, demonstrating a particular flare for hospitality.
After the meal we played Super Nintendo’s Mortal Kombat 3. Rodrigo destroyed us.
“Man if only you had Super Mario Bros… I’d show y’all what it’s about. Or N64 Goldeneye, at that game I never lose,” I tried to defend myself. I told them about the trip on Super Pedro and how I played like a machine. No one believed me.
“Be riptor!” cried Natalia, referring to one of the characters in another game.
“It looks like a bear, kind of, said Rodrigo.
“We have many bears,” Alexei said.
I replied that we had many bears too.
“But our bears constantly attack people, you know.” His pronunciation of anything with English ‘ow’ was delectable. “You know, sometimes you don’t go work, and boss says why when you say, ‘oh, you know, bear attack.”
In the morning the brief German was gone and Alexei and Natalia would also leave. They might like to party quite a bit more than I do, but they’re very refreshingly honest. Alexei was telling us about how he laughed at a girl who, after bragging about having so many Brazilian boyfriends, was impregnated by one. He also jostled the German guest about Adolf Hitler.
I had to go back into the city center, back to the Bolivian consulate for the visa. The Russians had also met our Evo Morales look-alike. They had to get a visa and a yellow fever vaccination. I was frustrated that I had to pay so much money just to get into the country. They could get their visas for free, but they had it much worse in more other parts of the world.
“Whatever, man, it’s just the fee you have to pay. That’s just it. It’s the border. I hate visas you know, it breaks the trip, but visas are visas, you buy it!” said Alexei, trying to reassure me.
They had decided to go back to Argentina to avoid paying 100 dollars to get their vaccinations here when they could just get them free there.
“Say hi to Evo Morales for us!” They jumped in a combi and were gone.
Once in town I took out 135 dollars, 70,000 pesos, from the bank. Back at the consulate. The walls were off-white. The cheap desk the consul had wobbled back and forth as he printed out documents. There were documents everywhere. Documents documents documents, so many documents you could drown in them were they to fall. The real Evo Morales smiled with his colorful sash from a picture frame on the wall. The consul looked at me, “Next!” he yelled.
10 minutes later I slammed the door as hard as I could behind me and yelled at the top of my lungs, “FUCK!!!” Fuck, indeed. I’m rarely made so upset. I was denied the damn visa. Why? Because I had no space left in my passport. I had tried to convince him to put it on the last page, which looks no different from the other pages if not for the lack of a page number.
“No, that is like putting it on the outside of the passport,” he’d said. No it was not. It was very much on the inside back cover, on a page that completely resembled the others. I knew I would have to get more pages eventually, but there were still 4 spots left. His visa would take up a full page.
“Well, put it over that stamp, that’s from Germany in 2005, it doesn’t matter,” I’d said.
No. No you can’t do that. It’s an official stamp. BULLSHIT. It was faded and almost impossible to read. Put the fucking visa THERE. Fuck this country, if they want to make it so hard to get into; they not only lose the 135 dollars I was surprisingly willing to pay, but they lose my empathy for charging them so much to get into mine.
Of course this is all me being pissed off, and I know that the border fuckers don’t represent the people. Of course I might try to get in to Bolivia from the Argentinian side, once I have more space in my passport. However, for now the country is put on hold. I didn’t actually believe that walking around the Bolivian town in Desaguadero would be my whole experience of that country, but it’s looking that way.
There seems to be some relief in my shoulders as I sit here in McDonalds. Rodrigo is at work. The Russians have gone. I am not going to this one country, but I was never particularly excited to go there in the first place. I have close friends in Chile and Argentina, and I know not one single person in Bolivia. Perhaps after Chile and Argentina I will be craving the Andes once more. Ugh. I don’t know, and I’m having trouble caring.
I have 135 dollars that I would not otherwise have. I will not use them to splurge. I will save it until I find out how much the extra pages at the embassy in Santiago will cost.
Alas this chapter comes to a rancid end that speaks of the horribleness of borders. What can you do? Continue. In my case it is south, and it is tomorrow. The journey goes on. Plans? Ha. The greatest plan was never made.