Monday, January 16, 2012
I saw from the centre of the city of Tarija, Bolivia a church on a bluff that looked impossible to climb without real gear, so I decided to try it without anyway. I found a road that made it possible to walk. It's not, as I had thought, a church but a cemetery.
A couple of things interested me, the first being the road itself, all hand-laid stones.
It's pretty, of course, but if one thinks of roads before we had the layered marvels that came about in the 19th century, then we are grateful that there are now roads leading through the Andes that can and do take the likes of me to wonders unimaginable without having ridden there. I love roads. Read an account of Defoe or Dr. Johnson travelling, or try African roads and see what I mean. But this road up to the cemetery is pretty, and it led me to a garden worth the visit.
[Garden walls at the cemetery]
I got caught in a rainstorm at the cemetary, which prompted me to write a short piece to come when I have another good connection, "Raindrops Keep Falling on the Dead." It has to wait. Butch Cassidy, Sundance Kid, and Che are all dead and won't mind.
Hope you can return for it later.
Meanwhiles, I sat out the rain and checked out the statue that first prompted me to make the climb.
I called it Gumby Death Angel. If I can't think of anything better at least I had a good climb up and down the hill. I considered Klaatu, but I think I should quit while I'm winning.
Today I tried leaving, and I couldn't get a bus ticket. Not one of the three companies going to Villamonte, Bolivia had a seat for sale. That place is the last bus stop before the frontier, which is a few hundred miles further. I don't know how I will find a hotel room there. I went back to the hotel I had checked out of earlier today and was told there were no rooms left. It was the same all over town. I can't understand this place. I finally ended up in a luxury place with super wifi, and hence, if one looks, there are a dozen posts this evening alone and nothing much for most of a month in Bolivia. Money does wonders for this old boy.
Soon it's Paraguay. I have my visa long ago from the embassy in La Paz.
Neat building, great-looking fancy visa befitting a Third World country that impresses people with paper stuff like visas. Nicer the visa, worse the country, in my experience. But life is for learning.
I haven't had a chance to listen to his music yet, so if one shops around and finds anything particularly nice, let me know so I can post a link here.
I found a parkette on a hilltop in La Paz where Moreno's friends and fans have made a lovely monument to him. I think anyone who inspires that is worth a listen to. I am really taken by the simplest thing: that the wrought iron fence that keeps folks like me from falling off the cliff is designed to look like musical notes. What a neat piece of thoughtfulness.
In all, this shows me that Bolivia and life in general can be grand if only one has a bit of money, a bit of time, and a desire to love living. It doesn't take too much beyond attitude and a few dollars in a clean, well-lighted place.
I can't say these are nice guys, they being the riot squad, but the two who hung around were damned good sports to pose with me while the other dozen menaced the crowd who wanted to get in on this famous shot.
Thanks UTOP La Paz.
[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.
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.
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....
To my delight, and it took a long while, I find this to be a most excellent city. However, I had difficulty finding a taxi from the bus station, as it were, that would take me to the city centre. I'd arrived at the station, a round spot with kiosks and buses that pull up around it, at 5:00 a.m., dead tired after a sleepless night of watching the Andes by moonlight. No driver would take me to the city centre. I had to cross a major blvd to find a taxi driver who didn't notice I had come from the station. I got him to take me to a hotel, booked full, they told me, and then to another, and finally, after at least ten places with no vacancies, I found one on a dirty side street, a one star dump that I took without complaint. I showered, and having slept for a few hours took a look around town. My pleasure. What a lovely looking place. Getting lost within minutes I found myself by the river.
It started to rain at some point, so I took shelter in a church in this city that supposedly considers itself more Argentine than Bolivian.
I'm left wondering about that. In a walk a day later I missed the road to the cemetery, which I assumed was a church on a hilltop. Along the wrong way, I spotted a nicely painted house.
Some things are universal, such as love. Saw that, too. It's likely more meaningful in a foreign language, forcing one to repeat it to ones loved on in Spanish.
Yeah, I'm sentimental. More later about my trip to the cemetery and more of the city.
In days to come it will be my pleasure to take the last bus in Bolivia to shining city on the hill, Villemonte, Bolivia somewhere to the east of Tarija, a fine city I had not known of a week ago. And from the city of Villemonte I will alight form my bus sometime in the early hours of the day to make my way to the frontier of Paraguay; and there, taking my chances with local transportation, I will go yet farther south through the lowlands of el Chaco to the city of Filadelfia,, onward south again to Asunción, and to the lost jungle utopia of Elizabeth Nietzsche-Forster's proto-Nazi communal failure, Neuvo Germania, temporary home of Dr. Mengele, dark paradise of the blind Aryan descendants of the perfect race, sightless from birth, bequeathed a life of lack of vision by visionary fore-bearers. Nor will my road end at the end of the Naziesque retreat from Modernity: I will continue to the farthest reaches of civil sanity to the jihadi refuge of Ciudad del Este, the tri-borders area of Paraguay where Muslims have taken themselves to hatch plots against humanity, their post-Nazi schemes fitting in perfectly with the past lost to blindness in the jungles, as drowned and unmourned as Mengele himself. I'm off to Paraguay, the land once described in a 1970s Rolling Stone magazine headline as “'The Last Place on Earth for the Worst People in the World.”
Far from expecting a brutal autarkic dictatorship of the Stroessner regime of old, of peasants toiling for latifundista fascist land barons it is my uninformed guess that I will arrive in a land rural and benign, populated by quiet people in the countryside, lively and pleasant in the city, but perhaps not ground down by the the weight of post-Modernity's demands for public moralistic purity and the deluge of self-destruction in the pursuit of personal excellence at the cost of life itself. In Paraguay I do not expect the German fascist fist to crush me and all others in the nation as of old, nor do I expect the vicious assaults on man's nature that are the norm today in the Modern world, in Canada, for example, the nation of my choice for the mantle of Paraguay's past designation.
Time will tell me if my guess is correct, that Paraguay is a green and pleasant land of rural living, a city by the river sometimes swollen and sometimes quiet and languid, peaceful and perhaps charming. Time will tell me, and I will tell these pages. I will tell if I come to the Latin version of North Korea or if I have left it in leaving the living of Livin' Ca-Nada Loco.
Curiosity finally drove me to find out just how high in the world I am here in the Andes, which I did by looking at other places in the world to compare this to. Back home we make a big deal of Denver, the Mile High City. Today I snort. Tourists sometimes mention the thin air and chill of Mexico City, higher still. And we all know of the high Himalayas, home of Mount Everest, highest mountain in the world, dwarfing Denver and Mexico City without question. South America, land of the steaming Amazon jungle, the gentle breezes of the Argentine pampas, the swamp lands of the Guianas and the rolling rivers of Venezuela bring to mind ever-warm landscapes of easy summer living and laid back, life-loving people, coups and revolutions aside. I for one had never till yesterday had any thought of comparing South America, e.g. La Paz, to the elevations of Lhasa, Tibet. Today, depending on the source, I know that they beat each other by a hundred feet, each over 13,000 feet. Bolivia, the Himalayas of South America.
When I was years ago bumming around the Dead Sea, lowest point on earth, so far as I know, I read about two deserters from the Roman army who were spotted running away and were chased to a cliff over the sea. Facing death, they jumped, followed by soldiers hurling spears and shooting arrows at them as they swam away. The Roman commander tired of that and decided to let the deserters drown. Of course, the deserters did not drown, and the commander, seeing them live, decided to let them go, anyone being that lucky deserving to live and go free.
I've hiked f along the bottom of the Grand Canyon climbed Mount Olympus and Mount Zion, and I've dined atop the World Trade Centre tower in Manhattan. I've been in pain so terrible I can't recall days at a time, and I've had sex that dissolved me into the oceanic. Highs and lows of many kinds, today being in the Andean highlands, drifting ghost-like toward el Chaco and some further differences I cannot foretell the outcome of visiting. Maybe good, maybe bad, high or low. I leap and hope. I'm just curious.
My mind is crammed with world literature, poetry, history of times and places past and exotic, filled with the arcane and the wondrous, intellectual delights and much too awful to recall without falling depressed into debilitation and sickness, weltschmertz, and loathing; but there is the swell of grand and elaborate hopes and dreams, visions of an impossible future of unfolding treasures and mad joys to indulge, of joke to retell. I have a full mind. But my Spanish is limited, and I slow down to a halt often enough, finding myself in a void of communication, searching for something I just do not have, i.e. the word that others will understand. And then, too, I find my English lowers to the simple, to the cliched, to the basic just above my Spanish. I speak the easy and the immediate. Gone are Bocaccio, Dante, Chaucer. 'I'm going to the tienda to buy soap.' This I say to travelers I meet, my tale, my contribution.
People I meet are often mysteries to me, as occult as stones. And when their secrets are reveled to me, when I hit on the right words and combinations thereof, I find often that they are going to the tienda to buy soap.
Few people traveling (those I meet) are on a pilgrimage to some holy site of universal power, they chattering away the days telling tales of the high and low to wile away the hours and the days as they move slowly toward the magnificent, telling tales of eternal delight. Nor are they driven from their homes by plagues, public or private, in search of anything much more than moving along from here to there in search of another mile and tea at a cafe in the sun, a stroll down the market highstreet to browse among local handicrafts for some thing or other to take back home when the traveling is done. Some might stop on the sidewalk briefly to admire the old statuary atop a church facade, or they might stop for ice-cream to eat under the shelter of a tree in the park. The tale of the day is cosmically interesting insofar as it is possible. The day of travel is as simple as buying soap. The great literature of the world rests idly in my mind, and I long to chat with simple girls, clean and smiling, their tales of sweet smells and smooth skin and warm water, tales of soap and bath.
I've gone about as far as I can in my search for the Nineteenth Century, and here in southern Bolivia where shops are filled with 16 speed Oster blenders and see-through nylon panties and a hundred varieties of Chinese radios and toys that cause moments of psychic storms, I come as close as possible in my time to that lost time I long for-- to a place where a band of haggard men play old beaten brass
horns to the beat of cracked drums as they return from a funeral, previously solemn, now up-beat, the Twentieth Century all around them in their mourning, resignation tempered with belief in the good of eternity. The small group of men carrying a make-shift shrine of plastic flowers and a doll like Jesus half hidden in a polyester blanket, these men trudge up the street in old plastic sandals and ragged cotton jeans, slowly, slowly, to the annoyance of the family caught behind them on a narrow stone lane, the father tapping impatiently on the steering wheel of his shiny silver-grey Hummer, plump and clean well-dressed children in the back seat gawking at the men in procession ahead.
Electricity obliterates any illusion I might hope to wish for that this is the last vestige of the Nineteenth Century. The metal frames holding up the plastic tarp roof of a sidewalk vendor selling medicinal herbs and witchcraft charms from a stack of boxes printed in China defeats my hopes. But pregnancy gives my spirits a lift in this time, a scene of vitality the Nineteenth Century lacked, pregnancy being a delight and a fulfillment today that was a potential death sentence then, now a promise of good, a curse to others in the Modern world of the Twenty-first Century so many Modernists claim to despise, the latter ignorantly longing for a time closer to that of the hunter-gatherer era of starvation, rampant disease, total ignorance of the night, and the love of the darkness of the mind that is pre-Modernity.
In this land of relative simplicity of work, family, and death I startled those in the courtyard of my hotel when, leaving the shower, I suddenly crouched stark naked behind a stone column, reaching pointlessly for my non-existent pistol, trying to point it at the sound of distant fire-crackers exploding harmlessly elsewhere. This is not the Nineteenth Century. This is not the war. As much as my despised fellows in other lands I fall far short of living in the age of my time.
I took a bus through the Andes from Sucre to Tarija, and I can easily believe in God now that I have crested these high Andean plateaus and seen with my own eyes thereon miles and miles of crops growing on otherwise desolate plains at the very top to the world, these majestic mesas producing for the first time in history food enough for the people of a nation. If every man on earth today were to pile up dirt and stone, at the end of a lifetime they might altogether rival the being of one mountain here among the thousands standing silently and without celebration, these marvels of nature, mute and unremarkable in their glory. And yet it is only a few scattered families working who outstrip nature in a season by growing corn on these mountain tops so high they leave most men breathless and sick. Corn grows here enough to feed a million men for a year. And there are more mountains yet to please us.
These giant bulks of stone and a scattering of soil would leave most expecting to find hovels housing the semi-starving peasants, as has been the history of man for most of history and beyond; but here and now, in the mountains, just barely a reach from the sky, one finds Japanese-made 4X4 pick-up trucks pared in a glow of electric lights cast from farm houses fit for kings, houses filled with healthy children watching satellite television or playing video games on personal computers while parents prepare dinner to satisfy the hungriest traveler who might knock at their door, the children eating and sleeping in peace and security of a loving household after a day's pleasant life, awakening to a hot shower provided by solar panels, washed fresh with soap that smells of heavenly gardens, breakfasting on mixed mangoes and milk made smooth in a 16 speed Austrian-made blender, fresh eggs and bread and butter. If life is better for a Malibu multi-millionaire, it might be only marginally moreso, if at all, all the surface of California glitter being worth not one family member's day away from home. A farm at the top of the world, and a family cashing life under the skies, all of it looks down at the earth's abundance made real by man acting for man. There was a man named Norman, but there are others, unknown to all but family who made and maintain this paradise of food and family, people as unknown to the world as the mountains of southern Bolivia, giants all of them.
In the night I travel across the mountains, down steep valleys and up again over passes the rise into the clouds, moonlight shining through puff-ball blue clouds drifting across the sky, purposeless in their existence but proof of the further road ahead of me as I ride over the roads made my man to fulfill his destiny as living thing content in a bountiful world.
Mountains so high one is sick to travel across them, and there is food there and there are families who make it all flourish. I know all this because man has made roads, and I travel over them. These roads ar the paths to the future of mankind, higher than any mountain, grander than any peak, all of it pointing to a wonder one might see as God in his perfection.
My grandfather was born before the Wright Brothers first flew at Kittyhawk, North Carolina. My father was born the day the stock market crashed in '29. I was born and lived a long time before my mother, working full-time while she wasted away dying from cancer to the point her co-workers couldn't stand the sight of her sickness and had her moved to an isolated room out of their view, had spent enough at the supermarket to amass books full of Green Stamps coupons that we licked and pasted into books that she redeemed to buy, in her final days, both a colour television and a microwave oven, our house being the first in the area to have such luxuries, the wonder of the neighbourhood, drawing gawkers to look on at such modern marvels. Today, in my hotel room in Sucre, Bolivia, I have a colour television with a connection that brings in a hundred channels or more, and I have a microwave oven to cook my dinner. No wonder. I have much that few would have dreamed of not so long ago, including a laptop computer in my backpack. I can communicate now with the universe in an instant, free for nothing, from a past that used to charge significant amounts of money for making a dial-up phone call across town. I am rich beyond the dreams of any man of my youth.
Since I was last on the road in the Third World I now see a change created by the unloosing of the Chinese economy and a nation of people dedicated to producing an ocean of consumer goods for the world. I could not have dreamed yesterday of such things as I see for sale on Sucre sidewalks today. I know the world without such stuff. I know a world with. I know the difference.
Ten years ago the Chinese had not flooded the world with consumer goods. Today, the world is flooded everywhere with Chinese things. If the Chinese quit their efforts today there will still be enough to last the world a hundred years. Chances are the Chinese will continue pouring stuff into the world for a hundred years beyond a hundred years. What I see in Bolivia today is for me a frame from a movie reel projected at 24 frames per second, if such a reference makes sense to the average reader any longer. No matter what I see today it is not what will be tomorrow's Bolivian reality. Tomorrow Bolivia will be a foreign country, not only for me but for Bolivianos.