silas crosby

some words from the sea

Month: July 2011

above all else

 

 

As the bus climbs the long hill out of Cusco, a man stands up in the aisle at the front of the bus and fiddles with a portable mic and speaker system attached to his belt.

Amigos lindos,” he greets us, “beautiful friends, thank you so very very much for being so kind as to gift me a small bit of your attention and precious time”.

While every day now, like a linguistic advent calendar, I uncover small delicious morsels of language, I have finally arrived at the point where I cannot choose to be deaf to the chatter around me. In this moment I would like once again to be oblivious; in the ten minute preamble to his inevitable pitch I have heard enough to know that this salesman’s speech is everything that I dislike about the Spanish language. It is pure earnestness mixed with nauseating supplication. His respect for us as an audience and his gratefulness for this small tiny precious bit of time is linguistically laid on as thick as the mayonnaise on a Chilean hot dog.

After ten minutes of complimenting us as parents, children, workers, travellers and of wishing us good health, safe travels, and fine weather he finally gets into the meat of his pitch.

“How many of you, beautiful friends, have a televisor in your home?” The audience isn’t prepared to participate and so hands are slow to rise.

“Well, beautiful ladies and fine gentlemen, please be so kind as to let me inform you of a recent scientific study that says that, due to the violent and sexual content in many television programs today, our children, yes that’s right my beautiful friends, our children, are more violent and prone to dangerous sexuality than ever before”.

He bows his head.

“I too have children,” he tells us, “and I will not deny that I too have used the televisor as a babysitter. My children are not perfect nor am I.” He lets this admission have its full possible impact on the audience and then straightens and holds up a finger. Even without words his message is clear: there is hope.

Amigos lindos, with your generous permission, allow me to introduce you to something that will change the way you live.” He bends down to open a black suitcase at his feet. The audience is studiously feigning disinterest but there is an almost imperceptible shift as necks are craned every so slightly in order to see what comes out of the man’s bag.

He stands up and with both hands holds out a dvd case toward the crowd.

 

Despite the buildup and the dramatic presentation, it is difficult to communicate here just how uninspiring the idea of a life-changing dvd is in that moment. Not a single person in my range of sight looks even vaguely interested. The guy beside me leans his head against the window and closes his eyes.

Undeterred or oblivious, the salesman carries on to describe to us, point by point, the content of the three encyclopedic dvds and they way in which this educational material will almost certainly make our children and ourselves into better human beings.

I tune out entirely for the explanation of the first disc, human anatomy and for most of second, science and technology. As he discusses in detail the historical progression of our knowledge of the universe I spend ten minutes wishing I had a window seat.

We have reached the altiplano above Cusco and the mountains on the other side of the sacred valley soar skyward, jagged and snow-capped. In the fields on either side of the road, herds of llamas and alpacas are tended by women in colourful skirts and sweaters, their bowler hats dark against the bright blue sky.

In order to showcase the third disc, human civilization, the man reaches into his suitcase again and pulls out a pink portable dvd player. He pops in the dvd, walks us through the first couple of menus and holds his own microphone up to the machine’s tinny speaker.

Even from the middle of the bus the image on the small screen is unmistakable. As the camera pans out over the ruins of Machu Picchu the narrator’s voice fills the inside of the bus.

“Although it lasted for little over two hundred years, the Inca civilization was one of the most advanced in history”. The scene changes to a dramatic reenactment of indigenous men harvesting grain from a terraced mountain.

“Intricate architecture, a complex system of government and experimental agriculture are just three of the many things the Incas developed high in the Andean mountains all the way from Ecuador to Bolivia”.

The irony of this situation is impossible to ignore and the dilemma tangible; how does one sell the knowledge of someone’s own culture back to them? And, more importantly, why? The man pauses the dvd and surprises us all with a little pop quiz.

“How many people,” he asks, “were on the Incan high council?” People around me shift uncomfortably.

“Nobody?” he probes. The guy next to me mutters the number fourteen under his breath and leans his head back against the window.

“Not a single person?” he acts surprised and disappointed as he closes the dvd player, his point apparently made.

“Well, along with many other things, amigos lindos, you will learn that the Incan high council consisted of fourteen men and that they worshipped the sun as their supreme God”.

 

Across the aisle, two small girls sit bathed in the high altitude sunshine that pours in through the window. The smaller one gnaws on a bright purple potato while the older one braids her hair into two long black braids. Beside them their mother plays with her cell phone and absently fiddles with the long silky tassles at the ends of her own waist length plaits.

The message is unspoken and crystal clear.

Who are you to tell us of the greatness from which we have descended? Who are you to decide what things our children should know?

 

Forty five minutes have gone by since the beginning of the pitch and the salesman is impressively undeterred by the palpable lack of interest. Terraced stone ruins are visible above us on the hill as we pull into the first small town. When we come to a stop the man thanks us all again for our generous attention. And, without having made a single sale, he gets down off the bus, crosses the road and within minutes climbs onto a bus going in the opposite direction. Through the windows I can see him take his place at the front and fiddle with the speaker on his belt. Amigos lindos…

 

Six hours later we climb off the bus, sticky and sweaty in the surprising heat of the jungle. Along with a couple from Madrid I begin the hike along the river into the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We crack ourselves up by saying amigos lindos three times in every sentence.

“But really, amigos lindos” says Natso in his lisping Spanish accent, “it’s like the guy has no idea that you can look all that shit up on the internet…”. He shakes his head in disbelief.

 

The road we walk on is in shadow now but sunlight still bathes the tops of the mountains that once were believed to be gods. As we round a bend in the road, the valley opens out ahead of us and I watch my feet move over the uneven ground. And above all else there is this, I think, to simply follow the trails where feet have fallen for many thousands of years.

 

 

 

 

what we do to pass the time

I sit on a low stone wall in a small patch of morning sun and look out over Lago Titicaca. I drink yoghurt and eat cookies for breakfast and watch as tourists congregate in small groups to for the fleet of small boats that will ferry us from Copacabana to the Isla del Sol. Funny as it may sound, I’m pretty new to the Gringo trail – there was little tie dye and fewer dreadlocks and feather earrings in the middle of the Chilean desert and it was not until I arrived here in Bolivia did I realise how far of the beaten path I had managed to get myself. Please don’t misinterpret: this is not a matter of pride. Those cold, dusty weeks and the roads I travelled aren’t part any itinerary suggested by Lonely Planet for good reason.

 

I know that I will soon tire of aloof Argentinos trying to sell me macrame and British teenagers on their gap years, but for now it’s all a welcome scene full of cheap alpaca sweaters, badly accented Spanish and bottled water. I spend a few minutes trying to figure out how I must look, which niche I get placed into by anyone who might bother to try. At this point my clothes are dirty and weird enough to fit in with any of the best Argentino hippie gang (I recently lost one shirt and ripped a pair of leggings, leaving me with exactly one outfit and a half, a desperate situation by anyone’s standards) but I don’t have a mate thermos strapped to the side of my backpack and my accent is too motley. I don’t sport nearly enough technical gear to be a German traveller and I’m definitely too old and too alone to be on a Gap Year from Australia or the UK. I’m deciding that I probably look like exactly what I am – a middle class university graduate unwilling/able to stomach the idea of a job with just three weeks of holiday a year – when the boat pulls up to the narrow jetty and a line starts to form.

 

Just three weeks in the country and already I know that there is nothing more foreign to Bolivia than the idea of safety regulations. Thirty of us are already packed like sardines into the interior of the small boat and more are making their way onto the roof of the cabin when the long, extremely precarious wooden jetty collapses into the water taking with it twenty or thirty people and their backpacks. The wind has been blowing ever since I arrived at the lake yesterday, and since it starts on the other side, by the time in arrives here the wind chop is significant. The scene is chaotic: folks on board rush to try and pull people out of the water as two foot waves buffet the newly freed boat around, pinning people in between it and the submerged dock. The half closest to shore manage to swim and wade to dry land dragging drenched backpacks. An Australian guy and I manage to haul one man over the side of the boat. He’s yelling at us though, really loudly, and as soon as he’s out of the water a pretty severe gash on his shoulder and back starts to bleed badly. A couple of girls scramble onboard in tears, trying to communicate to one of the Bolivian crew members that their backpacks are still in the water.

 

After the initial rush, it becomes clear that the presence of the boat is making things worse and so quickly the lines are untied or cut from the sunken pier, the outboards are fired up and we pull away. The scene on shore is quickly organizing and the wet and injured on board are precariously transferred to another smaller boat. And then, as if nothing at all happened, we all sit back down and the boat starts making very slow progress out into the lake.

 

I spend the first hour bracing myself. Every time the small boat rolls deeply against the steep chop I hold my breath. I desperately wish that I had chosen to sit on the cabin roof, because I can all too easily picture the dangerous panic that would ensue if this boat were to flip over, trapping thirty of us in here with a single entry at the rear and one open window at the front. In spite of it all, I have to laugh at myself for a moment; after eight months of travelling on a small sailboat, three of which were spent offshore thousands of miles from land, here I am on a lake, the shore within swimming distance, and I am way more nervous than I ever was in a gale in the middle of the southern ocean. The intensity can rarely sustain itself though, and when we bump up against the dock I realize I’ve been snoozing for almost an hour. So much for totally epic.

 

At 3810 metres above sea level, Lago Titicaca is the biggest high-altitude body of water in the world. Even after three weeks spent above 3000 metres I am seriously out of breath by the time I drop my backpack to the ground and collapse on a bench in front of Refugio Alfonso. The hostel looks down over the island’s tiny northern settlement, Challapampa, and to the north snow capped mountains fill the horizon. I happily spend the afternoon knitting in the sun, all of my ambitious plans for ruins easily sidelined. In the late afternoon my Argentina roommate, a Colombian couple and I descend into the town to forage food for a meal. At the outdoor kitchen above the hostel we chop and peel, exchange stories from the road. Mirta is an accountant from Rosario, Argentina, who decided three months ago to close her practice and see how far north her savings could take her. We pass around mate and wait for the water to boil for pasta over the clay stove.

 

The Colombians are part of a large tribe of travellers who’s progress depends largely on income generated while on the road. Everywhere there are tourists you find them squatting behind blankets spread with handicrafts.

“Have a look at my work,” they sing out. And if engaged in conversation they invariably waste no time explaining that this is their livelihood – they do this to survive.

Maybe I’m just jealous but I seem to get more and more bitter with every encounter. There are enviable elements to be sure; with hip, asymmetrical haircuts, handworked leather accessories, and noisy camaraderie it’s easy to feel really uncool just by being on the opposite side of the blanket.

What I have been struggling to figure out lately, though, is if I so desperately want to be cool, why I haven’t made the not so difficult leap to the other side of the blanket. I knit enough to have a solid stock of marketable merchandise but I balk at the idea of peddling it. For some (not very difficult to understand) reason, the idea of cornering a piece of the market away from a Bolivian peasant makes me gag. Go figure.

 

Over lunch on the Isla del Sol I come to a tentative explanation after a couple of hours of listening to the young couple boast about how little they have spent in the three or four months since leaving Colombia. I realise that within the myth of the travelling artesan is the belief that this is the truest, the purest way to travel. It is, at its most extreme, an elite and exclusive traveller’s club that disdains the traveller, like I, who relies on the relative riches of one’s savings. I therefore inevitably end up having to defend my own way, my own choices in the face of this bizarrely smug survivalism. And every time this happens I feel more put out.

 

We finish lunch with another round of mate as the sun glows orange over the village below. In exchange for a haircut, I teach the Colombian girl how to knit while her boyfriend strums a guitar. We’re all pretty out of place here, in the end. Everyone is far from home and the road is rarely smooth or easy. It’s no wonder, then, that we all look to belong somehow, to give meaning to these wandering days.

 

The last boat of the day arrives in the bay below and ten minutes later a couple of guys join us at the big wooden table, panting from the hike up. From their backpacks hang wooden poles covered in macrame bracelets. As he ties up his dreadlocks, one of them eyes the belt I am knitting.

“I like your work,” he says, “has the selling been good?”

I smile and shake my head.

“No,” I say, “I’m just doing this to pass the time”.

 

couldn’t make it up if i tried

The knock on the door beat through my huddled dream. I was the first awake in the room and through the fog I struggled to understand the Spanish coming from outside. The others around me started to make waking noises and I check my watch. It is quarter to four in the morning, pitch black and freezing cold. From the bed beside me Sonia gets up and stumbles across the room, weaving between the other beds. She opens the door to our driver.

“Come and take photos,” he says, “they are fighting, they have been hit”.

It only takes a few words to figure out that he’s incoherently drunk. I hand Sonia my camera and she follows him out into the night. The rest of us try to make out what is going on from the yells filtering through the walls. She returns shortly to report that four of the drivers are drunk and fighting outside in the sub zero Bolivian desert night. We converse briefly about how we are meant to climb into a car in a little over an hour with a now drunk driver With few options, we turn out the lights again and go back to sleep.

 

Two days earlier, the desert town of Uyuni does not give good first impressions. Almost constant wind blows dust and garbage through streets of crumbling adobe. As we had piled off the bus from Chile, we had been met by a handful of insistent women: Hotel? Salt flats? Good price. Agua Caliente. This kind of greeting never fails to leave a bad taste in my mouth, but nevertheless we end up following one of them through the main town square past small shops piled high with colourful textiles.

Despite it’s desolation, Uyuni is one of the must-hit spots for tourists in Bolivia due to its proximity to the vast salt flats of the same name. Tour agencies squeeze in shoulder to shoulder around the main square, all offering the exact same thing. Most everyone arriving to Uyuni plans to set out on a three day salt flat tour. This, despite the stories of drunk drivers, faulty vehicles, terrible food and bitter cold that get passed from traveller to traveller over beers in hostels all the way from Colombia to Argentina.

We are no different, and within an hour of arrival are booked to leave the next morning for three days of four wheel driving through the Bolivian desert.

 

Things don’t get off to a good start. We are ten minutes from town and our driver addresses us for the first time.

“If you all behave, we will get along, and things will all go well. If you don’t, then it will be a bad time for everyone”.

The six of us in the car exchange glances. We laugh nervously and I try to break the ice by asking about his family. No dice.

We drive for seven or eight hours through truly spectacular country. Every couple of hours we pull over beside a lake or under a snow capped mountain and brave the freezing cold outside for the sake of a few photos. As we pull up to the refugio where we will spend the night the sun is setting over Laguna Colorado and the sky is deep blue and pink.

Our group is multicultural – french, basque, catalonian, english, italian, argentinean, russian, canadian – and in an effort to stay warm and positive we share our respective national dances inside of the cold adobe building. No one believes me when I insist that Canada has nothing that even resembles a national dance.

 

Fast forward a few hours to the predawn dark with drunken drivers fighting outside and no one is dancing. Our options are limited even as the sun breaks over the top of the ridge and backlights steam rising from geisers across the lake. This place is beautiful, to be sure, but we’re in a bit of a bind. At seven o’clock, three of the four drivers are found slumped over inside the jeeps, passed out. There is vomit on the floor and empty whiskey bottles on the ground outside.

One driver rallies enough to convince his group to get into the car and away they go. As the day truly begins, we huddle in small groups trying to figure out what to do. A couple of things are clear: first, no one is interested in getting into the cars with the drivers and carrying on with the tour; second, what the fuck else are we going to do?

By nine o’clock a second driver has come forward to his group. He is appropriately embarrassed and begs their pardon. He tells them he will sleep until eleven, at which point he will drive them back to Uyuni where things can be further settled.

At this point there are eighteen of us milling around in the middle of nowhere. Six have just received notice that they have a way out, but the rest of us are still pretty stuck. Our drivers have not even spoken to us since the four am call for photographs.

 

At about ten, they finally come forward to tell us that they will drive us back to Uyuni at noon. They are still visibly intoxicated and no one feels relief at their announcement. To make matters worse, as soon as they are done mumbling to us, they get into one of the jeeps and drive away. Among those of us remaining, the general conclusion is that nothing good will come of a) their absence, which will most likely involve more alcohol or b) their return, which is bound to be tense and may not result in our safe return to Uyuni.

At this point, the plan that had been put forward by the Italian some hours ago starts to move from the realm of the totally crazy to that of the possible.

“They’ve left us here in the middle of nowhere,” he argues, “and the keys are inside the one remaining jeep. I say we drive ourselves back to Uyuni”.

Told in retrospect, this might not seem that radical. However, in the moment nothing could have been more wild west. The route in had been long, complicated and totally epic. The cars are four wheel drive for good reason.

The Italian is insistent and confident. Pretty soon he is standing on top of the jeep calling for people to pass up their bags. The driver who had gone to sleep it off is back preparing his own group for departure, and after some negotiations he agrees to lead us back and testify as to the situation we had been put in. By eleven the decision has been made to leave with the jeep and everyone is running on double doses of adrenaline. Everyone glances frequently towards the road the drunken pair had driven away on. No one wants confrontation, which is a certainty if they arrive back in the midst of our preparations to leave.

After a flurry of luggage packing and body distributing (there are too many people to fit in two jeeps and so jeeps from another tour and flagged down and begged to accept the two extra), we all climb in and drive away.

Nerves are raw and even though the Italian claims to have experience no one is ready to trust him right away. Gentle and not so gentle driving suggestions are thrown forward from the back seat as we navigate the first couple of hours of challenging terrain. Nothing has felt more epic.

Four hours later we stop for lunch and sit huddled in the sun. The members of the flagged down groups eye us with suspicion and maintain their distance. Soon after lunch we hit the main road again and everyone lets out a big breath. We still have a solid three hours of driving left. The rough route behind us, the stereo system finally agrees to work and the chilled out strains of reggae fill the crowded space.

From the very backseat, I watch the desert stream by and struggle to keep my eyes open. The last of the adrenaline leaks out of my system and with my eyes closed it’s hard to remember where I am. What started out as an epic stolen car getaway in the middle of the frozen Bolivian altiplano by the end of the day from the sunny, reggaed backseat of this crowded four by four ends up feeling like a roadtrip with too many friends.

 

 

hbd hermanita

from uyuni, bolivia

 

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