Monday, January 16, 2012

Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Lake Titicaca: Introduction

[This is not yet finished, a section in the middle to come. Will up-date as I can.]

Some people cannot stand to be alone, themselves as they are. They need “identity.” They have to have the 'right ideas.' Some people cannot be satisfied with themselves as they are, which is not to say people don't effectively improve their person by effort and diligence; for those who cannot manage the genuine attempt as often as not some adopt a persona to make themselves at least appear to be someone far greater than accomplishment allows for, to appear to be greater than the normal if mediocre person one most usually is, even among those accomplished. Some people who have little and want greatness join organizations to lend themselves their otherwise lacking charms; they might wear uniforms to lend themselves authority, prestige, or valued identity as a member of a larger and important group; they might, for example, join the military, the police force, or they might become anarchists in conformity with their chosen peers. Some go for flamboyance, and others might go for striking ugliness, male homosexuals in the first instance, female homosexuals in the latter. Such is one way of saying to the world, “I am no longer the pitiful me that I was; I am now part of some greater thing that exceeds all mediocrities.” This puts the poseur in a position of, if not strength at least of protection from harm, protection from judgment for ones otherwise lack of being interesting to the masses. One can dress up to attempt elevation, and those who scorn such are then deemed to be inferior to the greater identity. The latter's criticism, voiced or not, is proof of their inferiority and thus proves the rightness of the poseur.

Some cast themselves out by outrageous dress, while others don the wardrobes of intellectual fashion every bit as outrageous as that of transvestites. One is not the thing one is, one is a pose. The accomplishment is false, but it is ones own against a judgmental world. Pose is shield. Pose is weapon. Some don the garb of “ideas” in the same way transvestites don the garb of women that they are not, in ideas as in dress, one fad following another, the continuity among “ideas” being (usually) that of collectivism and victimhood. “You are not criticizing my person, you are criticizing my kind, over which I have no control. I am therefore innocent, and you are guilty of oppression.” The suit of identity covers the mediocrity of the bare self, ideas protective and concealing, enhancing and demonstrative, all of it false and injurious to the pitiful mediocrities beneath the skirts of Eros. One is great because one belongs to greatness. Others make one great, all failures together being grand in opposition to the mediocre. Join in and be one.

One current form of ideological garb is philobarbarism, the pose of the love of barbarians by those who are otherwise effete, i.e. the relatively well off Modernist. Today, the philobarbarist attaches himself to the “noble savage” as fellow victim and object of affection for whom one might feel sympathy due to ones own hated self as past part of an oppressive system, i.e. the system of Modernity, a system that seldom rewards failure. In terms of Modernity, barbarism is such a failure, and to be a barbarian is to be outside the mediocre norm, as with the poseur who has fled it too. In a search for status, to adopt as a pet some barbarian one can “save” from ones rejected norm is a rise beyond all other possibilities. The more exotic the barbarian, the more outrageous the barbarian's norms, the higher the status for the philobarbarist poseur. The barbarian? He who is outside the Modern. The Modern? The capitalist system the failed man flees in order to find a shelter from his mediocrity in the first place. The barbarian becomes a mascot for such a failed being, a banner to raise, a flag to wave at the mediocre bull of the norm. To abandon Modernity in favor of a Romantic pseudo-life of the mind as if there were or could be a Golden Age utopia to recreate, placing oneself at the top of such an imaginary world where one would rule the rejected and where one would at last be powerful and respected not as the mediocrity one is but as the demi-god one wishes to be, is to don the apparel of mystic seer, one who sees beyond, who knows the Truth, who is the rejected genius the mediocre masses are too stupid to understand the greatness of. The rejected system today is that of free and competitive markets in which one is rewarded according to ones performance in competition with ones peers. To reject the system of competition itself and to place oneself above it is to automatically rise to the top, though one will be a rejected genius suffering from the stupidity of the masses. A noble suffering among noble savages one would rule. The genius who cannot succeed in the competitive market can succeed in his imaginary world, and he rejects his failure in the world as it is, a world he must in turn hate and wish to destroy so he can pretend to greatness in his own mind. Rejection today is the rejection of the Modern, that competitive race against other mediocrities. Rather, one does not compete but embraces the world's most outrageous losers in this race, the worse the better, the most renegade the lovelier. The first will be last and last will be first in this day dream of the rejected rejector. That it will never come to be is the whole charm of it, never putting to the test the wishes of the fantasist, he who can forever be victim of evil powers bent on destroying all the failure's good wishes. The greater the failure, the more moral the suffering in it. It cannot be the fault of the great moralist to fail when the world is filled with so much evil. In trying, and in failing to win, the failed man is all the more noble for trying at all. That the failed genius is reduced to packing boxes in a factory is proof positive of the evils of the system. He is unrecognised only because the system is ruled by idiots. That is not his fault. Those who might recognise his genius would be those who are at odds too with Modernity, i.e. the barbarians of the world, his allies in rejection. Thus it is not surprising that one will find some such philobarbarists in the outlands of Peru, as at Lake Titicaca. One might find, as I did on a twelve hour boat ride, three such self-rejected people as we visited the floating “islands” of the Uros and the folk of the island of Taquile. The latter's claim to fame boasting the most outrageously expensive and worthless restaurant in South America as the sole purpose of its fame. But if it looks “primitive” it satisfies the philobarbarist intensely, regardless of the price one pays for such self-delusion. What is essential? The authentic.

Lake Titicaca: Part One

Our boat left Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca for a lovely trip across the deep blue waters on a sunny and warm late Spring day, the constant danger of sinking due to a sudden fury of waves being part of the experience one pays for. This day, at worst, the waves hardly exceeded a foot and a half, though it was enough to make some nervous, the boat rocking severely side to side, the waves tossing us about like dolls without will. But our day began in tranquility and optimism, making our way to the tortora reed Floating Islands of the Uros and Aymara people who live on them at Lake Titicaca.

It is finger thick tortora reeds in Lake Titicaca that the people of the floating islands use to make these rafts they live on, the rafts being the attraction that brings so many tourist to look at them and spend their money to visit, to ooh and ahh and smile at the exotic natives who live on them. I'm a simple philistine who enjoys the meditative aspects of boat rides. Upon landing at the Uros Islands, I looked, as did others, as a couple of local residents put on a show for us, in this case at a demonstration of tying together with nylon string the bundles of reeds that support the “islands” large and small, the former being family areas, the larger being the so-called commercial islands meant to receive tourists. The commercial islands have exhibits of handicrafts for sale, the main source of income for the locals, though it seems that mostly none of this array of stuff is made on the islands themselves, as pottery needs a kiln, an impossibility on a reed island, and the lack of animals making the production of fabric equally impossible there. But for most, such pickiness defeats the point of the visit, which is to imagine a simpler time and place in the life of man. For most it is but a diversion from the steady grind of homeland chores and duties, a few keep-sake reminders to bring a smile to those who see them on their domestic scene sometime later. It is an innocence not to be disparaged by the cynical. I was there. I had my experience, and it is of some value for that sake alone, regardless of the quality of the reality. Such needs no other justification. It is the life of the islanders to pretend that they are noble savages, and it is the duty of the tourist to pretend this is a good thing. Few would take it seriously beyond the experience of having a day's entertainment. But, aside from the Disney Land on the Lake atmosphere, there are some serious needs that one must address, one being the 12 foot depth of the lake at this point, a concern for the risk of cholera, a catastrophe the Peruvian people are well acquainted with.

Each commercial island is thus outfitted with a sewage treatment plant, in the case of the island we visited, cleverly disguised in a falling down tin shack at the far end of the island, outside the range of the typical tourist with little interest in such ignoble things as waste treatment. To play for tourists at being a primitive is fine as income, but life prevails, and modern sewerage, as unromantic as it gets, is one of those practical realities one addresses however quietly and discretely. It is the imported knick-knacks that are the draw and reason for the islands, not a display of the necessities of life in the modern that make it all happen. If not for the display and sale of knick-knacks there would be no reason for such islands to exist for any but the most disturbed misanthropes. They might well be pleased to reject sewerage themselves, though the risk to them will be slight since others make up the gap. If not for tourism, the life of the local would be reduced to subsistence on smelt -like fish, a dwindling resource since the planting of Canadian trout and Argentine king-fish, more or less out of range of the locals on the islands. Thus it is that the islanders make twice weekly runs across to the mainland for supplies. They enjoy Coca Cola as much as anyone else. It's a show as much as is Disney Land or Las Vegas, and one must accept it as such or face a devastating let-down of failed “authenticity” that one really must not expect from the sane.

I'm up for a show like the next man, but my curiosity propels me further sometimes to look for the insides of things I witness; thus I found myself distant from the group and standing face to face, as it were, with a very sturdy boat with an outboard motor attachment, a boat the locals use to go back and forth across the lake. At the other end of the island were highly stylised reed boats, having nothing to do with the daily doings of practical living. These people are not fools, risking their lives in high waves for nothing.

Even of those who make a living as characters in a watery diorama of the floating islands for the sake of tourists there is the practicality of living in the rest of the world, which includes not merely wealth but health, and so it is that though there are clinics for the masses, medicine itself is not free, and one must work to make a living, however eccentric ones profession might be, whether as a taxi driver or as a professional Indian on a raft. So, one hides the real from those who come to engage in the show, much as one hides the ropes and ladders from the audience at any performance. Most of us suspend our disbelief but not our genuine appreciation for the real behind the screens of performance itself. We would know, if we thought it through (and mostly we would not) that somewhere there must be a sewerage plant. Most of us are acutely aware of the artifice of the performance. Some few are not at all aware, having given over their lives and minds to artifice as reality, beyond which they cannot see. I have, sorry to say, lived with genuine primitives at the urgent insistence of a lonely traveler who wanted to experience such at first hand, barely surviving it, having come down with life-threatening dysentery for his troubles. I half carried him to the nearest village where the miracles of modern pharmacy allowed me to continue to carry him to greater Modernity, i.e. a hospital where his life was saved in time for him to carry on to further travels into the heart of illness. Few are so reckless.

My boat ride, a personal experience, to the Uros Islands, beyond, and back again, was isolated from my fellows, I being, as it turns out, a solitary soul at heart, though such is always a surprising insight to me. I did meet and did enjoy the company of strangers, though, and without their presence on the boat my solitude, though I would have enjoyed it, would have made the trip less interesting than it turned out. But there were not merely two couples of interest to me but three, as we shall see in the next part of this account. It is the third couple who become the centre-piece of my trip to the islands of Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca: Part Two

I was the last to board our boat, and thus sat in the last seat at the stern, which gave me full-on view of my fellow passengers and crew. Soon after we set sail, as it were, many of my fellows came past and climbed onto the canopy roof for a better view of the harbour and the lake. I stayed in my seat, not having slept in three days, and was nervous that the vibration of the motor would lull me to sleep and make me miss the trip, but I sat because I was too tired to move. I waited for the plunge into the darkness. I remained wide awake, even moreso than on land, unlike the metro-sexual 20 something in the seat across the aisle who fell asleep almost instantly and who stayed that way till his friends roused him and took him to the back of the boat deck, he lying down, face exposed to the sun. I didn't pay attention for a long while, but I realised at last that his thin pale face would blister in the sun; so, as I was about to move to wake him, another passenger laid a sweater over him to keep him from serious burning. I sat back then and enjoyed the view of the lake, the churning waves of the wake, and the sunny blue sky in what would be dead winter were I stranded in the north.

I'd been watching a couple at the prow of the boat, a couple resident at my hotel. When they came down the aisle to take a turn sitting on the cabin roof they stopped briefly chat with me, the girl strikingly pretty, vivacious, and exuberantly affectionate with her boyfriend, devoted partners, cooing and caressing like newly weds on honeymoon. The severely overweight and not particularly handsome boyfriend was in seventh heaven, sighing with delight, his huge round face the picture of happiness. I was happy for them.

A fellow across the aisle I chatted with turned out to be riding a motorcycle from Mexico to parts south unknown before returning to work in America. He'd noted my leather bike jacket, and so we talked about bikes and travel, though he being an engineer, my interest turned quickly to sewerage, which I have only the slightest understanding of, but matched with huge enthusiasm. He was rescued by his girlfriend, a Ph.D. In genetics, she being a charming and very attractive young lady, sophisticated and cool in a natural way that was as appealing as was the vivacious girl with the infatuated boyfriend. There were many couples aboard and I was alone to meet them. When asked, I explained that no one likes me. Strangely, most people laugh and we begin conversations and pass some pleasant time together till once again I am alone. In part my solitude is of my own choosing, I having the time and freedom to think and consider the thinking of others without interruption beyond my own nagging interior voice. And now, after a long hiatus from the road I find that I also appreciate in new ways the company of locals, so different in a mere matter of a few years, the locals, those who previously were stagnant and myopic and ignorant now blossoming into exotic beings I find I often prefer to my own people, those being ones who truly make me love my solitude, one such being the owner of a loud, deep, English accent and a haughty and surly tone that my superficial friendliness encouraged further to prompt his middling idiocy and laughable pretensions. He too was alone.

I asked the young Englishman, in the hope of starting a conversation about nothing at all-- something at the level of cocktail party chat-- where he was from, though it was clear he's from upper southern England, university educated, and not at all bright. I am a democrat. People surprise me if given a chance, often to my delight. But not always. Where is he from? Oh, silly me. In his highest haughty he dismissed me with: “It doesn't matter.” But of course not, we all being one in a multi-cultural world of the good European who hates his shameful imperialist past and loves nature and his fellow victims of Modernity. He's European, a man of the world, a sophisticate, an intellectual. What was I thinking as I said in today's roughly equivalent 'How do you do'? No, it is not a question; it is an English formality. I recalled an anecdote from W. Somerset Maugham, a young American man on an ocean liner who sleeps with an English matron. After arrival and some time passed, he meets the matron at a party where she ignores him. In a snit he complains that she didn't ignore him on the ship, she had sex with him. Her reply summed up for me the Englishman on my little boat: “What makes you think that constitutes an introduction?” Yes, we speak the same language, but the English are not really human.

I moved on, glancing at the sick metro-sexual who is actually European. He made not a sound, too sick to move and moan. His friends came and looked at him on occasion. He was delicate to begin with, and sickly; he looked worse. His friends seemed to treat him the way animals sniff a sick fellow, though here no sniffing. I looked away, it not being my concern.

Uros Islands

We landed at the Uros islands and disembarked to watch an embarrassing comedy skit put on by the locals, how they hunt with a pop-gun, how a rubber duck falls to the ground, how everyone is happy and fun. We were directed to the handicrafts available at various stations around this small space of Utopia. I found myself wandering, weaving through the perfectly made reed huts that looked like sets from a Hollywood movie. Behind the props I stumbled upon a row of small motorboats hidden in the reeds moored at the floating islands, those effectively temporary rafts, an illusory place for the tourist to spend a bit of time, spend a bit of money, to take away some pleasant memories, the locals living another day.

The sky was blue, the sun warm, and to wander on the yellow reed bales made for a nice day among the smiling locals and brightly coloured handicraft items displayed all around us. I spotted what I assumed to be a sewage treatment shack, and my day was better. I nodded to myself and returned to the group, encountering on the short walk the girl whose friend was sick. She stood alone on the reeds, smoking a cigarette, gazing into space. After a meaningless and insincere statement of sympathy for her sick metro-sexual friend I moved away and flirted with a local lady roughly my age. We could flirt and smile and laugh quietly because we're old enough to know it's just a game we play, that no one is hurt, no one is broken.

Taquila Island

The talk on hats was so trite that even a cultural anthropologist would snort in derision. Questions? Well, yes. 'Why is it that when it's so hard to get a date on Saturday night that people still throw virgins into volcanoes?' But I figured there was no point in revealing myself as a dirty of man, so for once I kept my mouth shut.

Return to Puna

At the dock we boarded the boat in silence, sat in, looked at the girl who had left her friend behind somewhere on the island. We went out into the depths of the lake and made our way homeward. Our boat rocked badly on the open water, driving us into the cabin for hand-holds, giving me the happy thought that I could drown in the relative comfort of a soft seat. The swells, once I reined in my imagination, were probably no more than a meter, that is to say, a foot and a half high, but the boat was rocking badly and some passengers were alarmed. As well, the unspoken concern for our lost passenger was in the air. Looking out the window we saw a huge plume of grey smoke rising from the water somewhere, the fire there attributed to the girl's cigarette smoking on the reed island, indicative of the general feeling toward her. I looked at my shoes. I should buy new ones soon. It's important.

We passed yet another billow of smoke on the water, though the source was too distant to see in the growing gloom. The third was very clear to see, two bright orange spots burning hard in the darkness. A German man spoke with at least the voice of authority, stating, “The colours of diesel and plastic.” A boat was burning on the lake, the water freezing cold. When another said he hoped those aboard had gotten off none pursued the thought.

We went on till the fire was too far to see, and the boat came into a calm. Suddenly we stopped dead. There was some panic among the passengers, one lady becoming a bit noisy, a stifled cry from another near me, and then the sound of a motorboat in the near distant dark. The captain announced that all was well, that a couple of people would be leaving the boat to spend a night on the floating Uros Islands with a local family, those two being the couple who had abandoned their sick friend.

Some things to some people are as important as new shoes, and for the couple in question, spending a night with locals on a floating island is that important. Rather than stay behind at Taquila Island, they had decided to continue on to experience the authenticity of those who have abandoned the vacuity of Modern living and its corruption and amorality, its evil neglect of the oppressed. How much better than European banality than to spend time with those who live an incredible 'real' life on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

As they boarded the electric outboard motorboat for the islands, no one said good-bye to them. There was silence as the burning boat across the lake flared in the distance. I thought the engineer would break the silence by spitting in disgust, but all was quiet as the couple departed, the motor itself silent. The lovers at the front of the cabin were oblivious to it all; the engineer's girlfriend rested her head on his shoulder. I broke the silence by eating chocolate chip cookies.

Lake Titicaca: Epilogue

I've written a few drafts now of the end of our outing, attempting to alter these minor chords to something harmonious, but my notes remain the same, our voyage to the islands of Lake Titicaca and back variations of variations, each draft telling the the same story in the same way with the same ending. I can't say it's unhappy or that I would wish it were different. It is a matter of a day, and life is oft times hard.

On the street in front of my hotel a few hours after our return I saw the newly-wed unmarried love girl as she approached me, stepping close, shaking my hand, coming closer, holding my hand in hers, hers warm and soft, her eyes sparkling; and she smiled and cooed and caressed me there, her bright blue-grey eyes the very vision of tender care and sweet promise. I let go of her hand but still she held me, her breath on my cheek, her scent enveloping me, and I have not felt such love in years as she whispered to me that her friend was leaving for home in the morning, that she would remain. I need not be alone.

To some, only the idea of people is important. Themselves are the ideas of others. The real is what they dream. For some, it is the idea of a Golden Age to flee to, a floating island as real as a painting by any Surrealist. I looked at a real woman in the real world. Her man tomorrow would leave her. It is hard reality that people have ideas. These people cannot stand to be alone as they are. One man is another man is any man.

She held me. Rocked by dark waves and the possibility of drowning, there could be a hand to hold onto, and I could float on her island....

1 comment:

truepeers said...

Oh oh, the New York Mimes agrees with you:

As I understand it, the Christian concept of "personhood" - the individual whose individuality is formed in the attempt, never fully achievable, to model Jesus - evolves from the earlier Roman concept of the "persona" or mask that one wears in pagan ritual or theatre. The Christian recognizes that to maximize one's Christianity, one does have to assume a role and play it in a certain sincerity and process of discovery, whether the role is that of father, friend, teammate, redeemer, etc.

It's easy for us now to condemn the primitive ritualized mindset where the mask is more important than the performer as individual, but the etymological link between the Western concept of personhood and the mask should remind us that one can never really realize the romantic dream of an individuality that is authentically one's own and just one's own. We still need role models.

We achieve greater indviduality by pursuing more and better models, within an evolving history - a history that expands without ever fully displacing anything that came before - even if we are too romantic to recognize or acknowledge them. But, the interesting thing is, one can never model the other without making all kinds of mistakes that render one, on occasion, the discover of something new, and for a moment, unique. (It's not impossible that your philobarbarians will, in their impossible quest to realize something "authentic" actually discover something true and new in the endless possibilities for hybridization of our many and overlapping forms of knowledge. I agree with you that this is not too likely the less aware one is of what one is doing. But one should not miss, for example, that the modern market economy, even in downtown Manhattan, does not do away with earlier economies - most notably the gift economy - but reinvents them and their ethics and depends on them within the field of market transactions.)

Why else do I read your blog? The idea of scouring the world for the hidden realities of sewage treatment adds a new dimension to my existence. Thanks!