[A brief reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at this link.]
Life at Villamontes, Bolivia was slow for the folks, like the river that dries up in the rainy season, leaving old soda bottles in the rut to turn brittle in the baking sun, or an old greying tyre resting among parched weeds. Nothing much to do but wait it out and whistle a bit, something more than a sigh. It had been hard for me to get there, all things in the Modern world considered. I had a time finding a room in Tarija, the stop that would let me go on to Villamontes; and then the lack of a bus seat to the village itself, forcing me to blow a bundle on the only available hotel room in the city, a luxury room but a luxury I can't do often. And all that to get a room behind the bus station in a ghost town with electricity and some nice Japanese made vehicles parked in dusty patches by adobe houses and roaming chickens. My hotel room, which I got at 3:00 am was plain, as we say of unattractive girls, as I write of Villamontes. My room was way overpriced, and missed all the advantages of – anything. A bed, a broken door, four walls, a ceiling, a floor, none of which kept out the sound of a cement mixer and a re-bar cutter from grinding into my deepest slumbers. I did sleep, though, even when after the first ten minutes the fan sparked up and died in a burst of smoke. I woke at noon and looked through the bugs on the screen across my window to the bus terminal parking lot, bare of buses, abandoned by people, home to a million screeching birds I couldn't see. So, to face the reality that is Villamontes, I stood in a cold shower and woke to my own life, the toilet beside the shower coming clean, my feet doing a little fat guy dance, which I now think of as cheerful.
Day time in the city, lunch time for me, and my world opening up to a grand adventure, the lost land of Paraguay, of El Chaco, awaiting me later. I walked for two blocks in the dust of Villamontes in search of somewhere to eat, a few signs suggesting that food could be available if only one knew the occult secrets of eating there. I am a stranger and I know no such mysteries. In the cool of the evening people do venture out of doors, and they do eat. But at high noon, no, they remain indoors, maybe feasting on steak dinners with fancy French red wine, asparagus spears in butter, fresh rolls, red cabbage in cream sauce and herbs.... I was starving. On the main street I found a tienda behind a mound of litter where a lady sat chatting with two old men at a plastic table, they looking up at me like I would look up at space monsters arriving in my living-room, if only I had one. I was at The Intersection. I think it is an important place in the city, it dividing the streets there, one from the other. I could call it the high point of my visit. I write this sincerely because at The Intersection there is a 15 foot high fish statue in a round spot in the centre of the street. It's not a well-executed work of sculpture, but then I'm not really an art critic, so my judgement could well be based on philistine ignorance. The point of the fish, I believe, and this in a way atheists believe in science, is to remind people and to suggest to outsiders passing through that there is a river somewhat beyond The Intersection that probably has fish in it. I deeply fear that any fish able to live in such water would eat man as well as cattle; but nevermind, he says. Those living in Villamontes have a famous fish statue, and that, in the end, is all that really matters in an existential fashion.
So, returning to my surprised hosts at the tienda sitting in the shade of an overhanging tin roof, looking up from the plastic table, they allowed me to join them and ask directions to La Victoria, Bolivia, the last dot on the photocopied map I carried with me, as important and detailed as the treasure map I had as a child. O marked the spot. Had I but known I would instead have carried a map of Gondor to help me reach Mordor. According to my gracious hosts, who puzzled mightily to understand my Spanish, there is no “La Victoria.” I showed them the map, as proof of their ignorance, and they, like others before them addressing this question, insisted that there really is nothing there, no people, no nobody nowhere. Ibibobo is the last place on earth for people in Bolivia. I drank a bottle of orange soda and watched a pair of flies copulating on my arm. I was sure the heat would kill them faster than me trying to swat them. I was wrong. I am wrong often, as it turns out. The flies stayed, and I sat, too hot to move. Ibibobo beckoned but I just wilted. Over and over I heard that there is nothing beyond Ibibobo, and I was incapable of resisting this further. So I took such good advice as I could manage to understand and walked across the road to the cafe of sorts where I was under the impression that a bus would stop in front of at some undisclosed time and day and that this bus might take me to Ibibobo. My dream was to ride a horse across El Gran Chaco, living off the land, making my way through the world like a man on his own; but this is not the 19th century, and I don't have a horse. I had accepted my fate of bus travel, if only I could manage to find a ticket. But the lady who sat in the cafe was having none of that. One word from me in imperfect Spanish was enough to set her into a rage equal only to that of a Westerner hearing a hint of imagined sexism or racism. In a barren world of heat and dust, there was a sudden storm of hatred of all things Dag. My bus? It looked like a long walk to Ibibobo ahead.
I returned to the tienda across The Intersection and inquired about my reception at the bus stop. I had misunderstood. I was supposed to go to The Place Next Door. That, as I could see, was a matter of some boards over a wall, perhaps resembling a door if one tried to see with deep imagination. Having no options, I approached and knocked, waited, shuffled my toe in the dust and sat on a log. 'There are no people there, senor,' I kept hearing. I gazed at the clear white sky. The door opened.
After having gone from place to place in the heat and the dust for two hours in search of anything useful, and having found a bottle of orange soda, I welcomed the sight of the half-naked crippled and obese dwarf who greeted me like a lost brother. I would have liked him anywhere. He was happy to see me, full of fun and joy and smiled like sunrise over Arcadia. I soon found out why. There is a bus, my new host said, and though it contradicts the story of there being no people, I accepted this as gospel. I would have to return at 11:00 in the evening to board a bus straight through to Asunción, missing the adventures of lone Gran Chaco travel hitch-hiking with passing ranchers. “There are no people there, señor.” The last stop is Ibibobo. Then my heart stopped:
My host had the pleasure of the company of a young lady, perhaps not the brightest intellect in Villamonte but certainly built for the discerning male, she being his daughter, I assumed, who took a great interest in me, singing a Michael Jackson song in words of no known language, and then, tiring of that, charming as it was, she fell to playing with a puppet on strings and sticks, a metaphorical sight so right it should have been wrong.
I bought my straight-through to Asuncion ticket, a ways more money that I have paid for any single thing on this trip so far other than the visa to Paraguay itself, and I made my way back to my hotel to wait out the remaining hours till my departure from Villamontes. As the day waned people emerged from their homes, giving me energy to explore the city I had mostly ignored, me passing by the cement factory; seeing the main river at the far end of town; passing by a long section of fruit and vegetable vendors on the road side far beyond The Intersection. I had given up too easily earlier in the day. There must have been close to 100 people milling about the city when I actually took a closer look. One lady at a now-open tienda took time out to go into the back room of her place to fetch me a litre of milk. Commerce often knows no nationality. And to finish my beautiful day at Villamontes I made my way to a table beside an adobe place where through a cloud of flies I saw a lovely fat lady making hamburgers on an open grill by the dog. Hunger, too, knows no nationality. My burger-- medium rare. My tastes, as we say in Spanish, are rara.
At 10:00, me being consistently neurotic, I sat out front of the bus stop waiting for the 11:00 o'clock bus. Over the course of the hour a small group of locals joined me, all of them remarking that there are no people in the Chaco. My feelings became less mixed about having given up on hitch-hiking. So many locals saying the same thing so often made me think they might know more than I about the land. A bus trip is something of a defeat for me, but in this case it looked like the only possible victory to be had at all. There is no life after Ibibobo.
I've been to cities in Asia and Africa where the sidewalks are so crowded that people have to brave walking on the streets amidst the traffic, risking death, making their ways regardless, cars swerving and dodging like monkeys through jungle trees, cars bouncing off each other, into others, controlled chaos reigning until there is a mangle of cars and bodies and blood. And other places are less crowded, some in Europe still devastated by the Nazi attempts to exterminate populations of people they disliked the idea of. Even my own homeland of Scotland has wastelands and clearance lands where one can go for miles without a person in sight, peat bogs and dead land discouraging the sensible. And there are other places now or soon to be obliterated by abortion and hedonisms of other sorts, places not exactly desolate of people but often filled with hostile migrant invaders from savage lands who take no part in the new, excluding the original people, those who are dying. But our trip in the night toward Ibibobo was a different sort of emptiness in the land. It is not a dead land, nor a land vacated by those seeking better lands elsewhere. There is simply no one there within sight of the road.
The Chaco in the night is beautiful, and even moreso in the light of day, a green land of trees and bushes and small ponds here and there betraying some small hidden family, a herd of cattle in the distance, the land inviting to the likes of me as our bus rolled over deep pits in the hardpack road, stretching the abilities of our driver as he managed to pull us through hairpin turns in the mountains, crashing over rocks fallen on the roadway. Hour upon hour in the moonless night and the heat we rode on to Ibibobo, not another vehicle in sight, no lights in the distance.
I dozed off for a matter of minutes between crashing bumps on the road and awoke because our bus had come to a stop in the night, that darkness punctuated by the glare of six bare light bulbs hanging on a cord across a field, six tables attended to by fat ladies covered in moths and beetles, the fat ladies bellowing to change currencies, this being Ibibobo, last chance to make good on ones promises. I swapped my hundred bolis for a zillion iguanas and then stood in line to have my passport stamped out of Bolivia. An unshaven version of the son of Al Capone accosted me for my being out of line, and I made a mistake of assuming that a dirty and ugly fellow in a Donald Duck tee-shirt and purple nylon shorts should mind his own business. A Cuban, who must know about such things, told me the man is important at Customs. I smiled and apologized. There are people at Ibibobo. One is Senor Duck. He just happened to be the man who examined my passport, seeing my visa expired, puzzling over the undated extension, and, not having quite enough authority to have me shot, motioned me on, back to the bus out of Ibibobo, he still quacking unhappily as I left him. This story, I am happy to note, doesn't end with the duck in a bad mood. The last quack was on me.
From Ibibobo in the night till noon the following day I searched the landscape for signs of human life, seeing only the occasional hawk and scattered cattle in the distance. Here and there, sometimes hours apart, I did see a dwelling of some sort, but no people about. Land, land everywhere, and not a person to see but those of us on the bus.
By noon we had come to the Paraguayan immigration outpost where the police were as thick on the ground as the flies and the dust. I stood silently as some of my fellow passengers were interrogated and sent off to small rooms in the concrete compound by the trees. No screams, no gunshots, no sight of fleeing peasants chased by barking dogs; but the paranoia was dense. The official who searched my bag, a huge young man with pistols on each hip and glittering brass cartridges in little pockets all across his vest, was pleasant with me, in contrast to others who bullied and harassed the passengers around me. Taking out a bag of cocoa leaves in my pack he suddenly stared at me, “Cocaine!” he yelled. And then he laughed. And I laughed. And those on either side of us laughed. And then we waited.
“We don't deport drug smugglers in Paraguay,” he said. “We leave them in prison.” And then he laughed. I didn't know if I should laugh, so I smiled. My guard said he would like to practice his English on me, but that he knows only two words: “Death” and “Murder.” I smiled a lot, praising his pronunciation. He was, when the whip comes down, a very funny fellow. Not so those who dealt with the girl nearby to me who is, I suspect, a registered prostitute.
In our crossing El Chaco over the next few hours we were stopped six times by police who boarded our bus, took the girl outside for questioning, and when she returned to her seat it was to open her purse and take out money which she handed over to those outside waiting. Each time she would smile that smile that covers the close-to-tears humiliation girls get sometimes. Our last stop was by a white car, into which the girl disappeared, leaving us one person fewer on the road beyond Ibibobo. I have found out since that such a car is also one of the National Police. I know not what it means.
Welcome to Paraguay.
Asunción, Paraguay. Day One.
When I was 15 years old I tied my sleeping bag to the Army surplus gas-mask bag I used for fishing tackle, and knowing no better, I called it a backpack. With that, I began a long walk, with occasional pick-ups from passers by, to the Canadian border to make my way to a rock festival in Brunswick, a place somewhere north of New York State. In spite of my most imaginative lies about the glories of Canada, that, for example, it was legal to smoke marijuana there, I could not entice a friend to join me on this trip to a foreign land to see sights unseen by Modern man, to explore a place no one knew about, and to know the world in its larger and stranger aspects. No one but I was curious enough to go, or even to consider going. For my friends, our little town was world enough. For me, home was home, but the world beckoned and I heeded the toll, alone, like today, over 40 years later, this night in Asunción, Paraguay, as lost and alone tonight as I was as a 15 year old boy.
On that first trip I got to Canada by lying about crossing over to by exotic cigarettes to show off to my friends camping with me at a nearby river. Things were simpler then, and though they aren't too complicated now, they were almost pure in their simplicity then, a world we seem destined to forget and perhaps recalling, to hate. Or maybe it's just me. I crossed the border, promising the border guard I'd be back in the afternoon, and returned via Detroit and west five months later. I didn't know at the time, and perhaps others didn't know either, that there was no home to return to. I haven't had a home since, though I have tried, and others have tried to make a home for me. I think now there will never be a home. I live in the world.
I crossed out of the providence of Alberta, Canada, that nation having providences like Rhode Island, into the next providence, one I couldn't pronounce, and, one fine summer afternoon, had sex with Sue from Toronto. We thrashed on the river bank as a school bus came by, the boys laughing and cheering as they gawked while Sue and I groped and grunted. She was a beautiful girl and I promised to see her in her home town if I ever passed through. And I did pass through, many months later, amazed and disappointed to find that Toronto, a town I had never previously heard of, was huge, and that Sue was not so easy to find there as she would have been to find in my little town. Other surprised came, like the girl in Ottawa, a city I also had never heard of, her ultimate surprise for me being that she didn't speak English, being from Quebec, being a French speaker, and speaking sounds the likes of which I had never before heard or imagined. Luckily, young love sometimes has a language of its own. I became then a life-long Francophile.
But my goal lay ahead of me, in the providence of Brunswick, an open-air rock festival there, some tourist in my little town having left a hippie newspaper in the park, the ad. For it having set me on my journey. So on I went in search of Brunswick.
I arrived in Montreal, Quebec, and after having ridden with a truck driver all night I stopped in a park to sleep a bit, waking to a shock I had never experienced the likes of nor heard of: I woke to the sound of a man singing a song in French, strange enough for me, but worse, his hand was in my pants. I opened my eyes to see-- as strange as anything ever-- that the man was Chinese. Strange as all that was, I was destined to see stranger still: that terrorists had kidnapped a couple of dignitaries and, after bombings and ruckus of various sorts, the government responded just in time for my arrival, with a state of martial law, soldiers and tanks in the streets, civilians arrested on a whim, and the city brought to a halt by the military. I loved it. Terrorists bombing and kidnapping, the military controlling the streets, excitement and fear and wonder everywhere, it was my kind of place, one where the people didn't speak a language I could understand, where the girls were open and loving and fun, where life might end with a misplaced bullet fired by a nervous soldier on the street, a very foreign place, wild and dangerous.
But as I stayed and savoured the action of a city under siege by a hostile government I became concerned that the school year had begun without me back home, that I was falling behind in grade ten, and that the longer I stayed away the harder it would be to catch up to my friends back home. High-school beckoned. As well, I had come to the end of what little money I had, having worked odd jobs along the way to buy food and do laundry and survive. In Montreal I had nothing and no hope of making money to live. Winter was approaching and the call to return to my home and school turned my mind from the phantasy life I was living to my real home. I thus wrote to my parents asking for money. My father wrote that he would send me cash to the main post office in Montreal. I waited anxiously and when the money came I tore open the envelope and gasped. The $10.00 he sent, a week's allowance, was not meant to bring me home again. It had a different meaning.
This all comes to mind because this evening I met a lovely French lad, beautiful blond hair and clear blue eyes, an open and generous fellow traveling the world for a year at his parents' expense, his friend doing the same. I chatted with the lad for a while, much about Bolivia, and we sat among Paraguayans busy with family and community affairs, business as usual here. And then the boys left to catch a bus, leaving me to thank the gods I can be among such happy people. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will see more of Asunción.
Asucuncion: Day Two.
I woke late today, somewhat sick and very much depressed due to the rain of last evening and my thought that it had continued into the day, keeping me bed-bound and disgusted by the world and myself for being disgusted about a rainy day. I did, at noon or so, get up and shower. I'd been up earlier to use the washroom, the Latin sickness having hit me in the dark hours. So it was late when I got out of bed and cleaned up for the day. It was actually nice out once I looked, and thus, being who and what I am, I decided to walk downtown to see the sights, the locals all telling me not to walk in this heat. Take a bus, they all said. That is excellent advice for summer time in Asuncion. I walked. I paid for it.
I probably didn't make a mile before I was so dehydrated I had to stop for water, finding a department store along the street where the water is dispensed from a large cooler, a cup tied to the stand for customers and staff to use at will. I didn't have my own cup to use, so, considering that if I don't have any tolerance for the local diseases I might get by sharing a public cup, the locals are as much as risk of my diseases as I of theirs, a fair trade in my estimation, if not a matter of hospitality on my part. I drank deep of local waters. And then I walked again.
I stopped soon after and had a bottle of orange soda, not something I would normally do, but now something of a fetish for me, orange being the one thing that seems to satisfy my thirst at least briefly. I stood in the doorway of a supermarket under the cold blower and drank my soda and blocked customers and I don't care. I was sweating so badly I thought I'd fall over if I had to move from the chilled air. But it all did come to an end, my soda finished, the wine and liquor section holding no charms for me, and the idea of more orange being not too much to tempt me further. I walked another short distance and stopped, to hot to go on, and there I saw a motorcycle shop, a place I could feign interest in, and I asked there about leather gloves, one item I truly do have an interest in. I didn't stop for a drink only because the owner of the shop was so charming and friendly that I spent an hour of his time conversing about travel and roads. I was, as it were, thirsty for conversation. My host was a fountain. I have been to other nations and many cities therein, but only here, in Peru, Bolivia, and now Paraguay do I feel at home with the people. I'm no more used to the friendliness and decency of the people than I am with the weather, now too hot for me, though I used to love such heat. I love the charm of the people here instead. I can always take another draught. But that too had to end, my conversation having an end as surely as a bottle is drained. I walked again.
I was unsure of my route to the centre of the city but my worthless map was better than nothing at all so I continued in hope of finding a hotel more suitable than the semi-broom closet I have now. I walked for miles, at one point encountering a German couple, asking directions, only to be ordered to get on ze trai-- told to take a bus. I walked, and I walked, and I looked at homes and automobiles that show me the people here can succeed in the Modern world as well as people in any other nation, though here be bums as bad as any in Europe or America. I hadn't seen many of the worst in Bolivia or Peru, but here they are, noticeably so, and yet so few compared to Canada that I am still pleased with life, even in this early stage of my visit to Paraguay. I kept walking till a giant raindrop made me look at the sky, a darkening grey that demanded my immediate attention, just in time, as it happened, to reveal a coffee shop across the street, which I made a mad dash for just in time to escape a tropical downpour to shame the weather in Canada, some of the worst in the world. And thus, for the first time in some days, I had coffee, not much to my liking and too expensive as well. For an hour or two or so I watched the rain, men on motorcycles, pedestrians running from buses, children howling in pretend horror, everyone caught fleeing for shelter as well as they could. The owner of the coffee bar, the place mostly empty, looked at me and looked at his watch, over and over. I don't care. But I did care eventually, and thus I paid and left in the lighter rain. I made my way toward the city centre.
I had taken on a longer walk than I had assumed, leaving at 2:00 p.m. I got to the city centre around 9:00 in the evening, looking for a hotel that I can rent tomorrow to escape from the little place I crawl into now. Little did I realise at first as I entered a nice looking hotel lobby that my walk in the rain had soaked my shirt completely and that my walk further had kept my shirt soaked, this time in sweat. I said to the clerk how funny it was that I was soaked from the rainstorm earlier; and he looked at my sweat-drenched self and said he had no rooms for me, not this week but perhaps in a week or so or later. I left and hunted a dark side street where I took off my shirt and hung it on a chain-link fence to dry it out, my hair hanging down in clumps, all of me sweating and awful. Such is enough, but with my hair hanging down and this all being in the dark I attracted a discrete audience who wondered what the half-naked person, man or woman they couldn't really tell in the gloom, was doing there. Finally a courageous and curious group of six just happened to cross the street and pass me by, an elderly German woman stopping to inquire. I told her my shirt was so wet no hotelier would have me till I could present myself dry and at least partly respectable. It suited her sense of order, though she told me to flap my shirt in the breeze. I said I'd tried, but it attracted too much attention. Toros, I said. She might have laughed. I don't know how Germans do that. I dried for an hour or so, eventually walking around government buildings by the river, waiting for my shirt to lighten, the sweat drying slowly, ever so slowly, stiffening with salt. Then off to find a hotel. There were none till late in the night, one available perhaps tomorrow, though the woman in charge speaks a Spanish I cannot really comprehend. I might try again tomorrow to see if she said yes to renting me a room. If so, then I will be closer to the city than here in the far reaches by the bus terminal. If not, then I could well lose my room here and be stuck carrying my backpack from place to place in the heat. This is what I call adventure. In time I will tell this tale and make it funny and interesting, but for now it's merely tiring and uncomfortable. I'm lost and tired and at odds with myself. This is travel in a foreign nation for me.
Having perhaps or not found a new place to sleep for some days to come I found, to my delight, a McDonald's where I spent more than half a night's rent for dinner. By chance I had dire need twenty minutes later of the sanitario, me and three young women lined up for the same broken facility at a gas station, two men joining the line-up as I waited. It was after I had my turn that I realized I had forgotten my hat somewhere, probably at the hotel. The hat, if not the hotel, is filthy and sweaty, and I am now wondering if I should return for either. This is travel for me. It's not yet amusing. That takes some years to occur.
I walked back toward my hotel room, it coming on close to 1 am, my legs still strong buy my mind wandering, and me wandering, being lost, unfortunately. I was still an hour on foot from my hotel when I gave up and got a taxi, expecting this to be similar to Peru or Bolivia, and being shocked to find a greedy cab driver who demanded thousands more local dollars than his flashing meter had read. It cost me an extra real dollar, but the demanding turned me off all Paraguayan taxis for the duration of this visit. From now on, I walk or take a bus. That will never be funny. I took a ride, and I paid for it. Tomorrow will be a new day, and I can sort things out as they happen. For this night I am done for.