Well how about that pretty little picture in the lobby of the last Bolivian restaurant I will eat in on this trip, and I promised myself I wouldn't dwell on this shit. Read back to my blog in week 4 people, if you have the patience. It's all there, black and white in size 12 Times New Roman; “don't waste that time being sad guys, we're leaving, but that's just what happens.” So where did it all change?
Well fuqking derr... it changed when it was me that was leaving Bolivia. My trip coming to an end, of course it's sadder for me now... maybe? Fhuq this I honestly have no idea how to think or feel right now, and am trying to take a step back to view this.
Normally, in a piece of writing, a convenient and persuasive way to make a point is to throw all the other obvious alternatives out on the floor before shovelling out the idea that I, the writer, had been holding on to all along. “Well of course, these other alternatives may seem fine at first glance, but lo! Consider my final, most valid point of all... HERE!” I normally fall back on that shit like a cripple's hobbledy walking stick, and it often serves pretty well as a tool for evading meaningful discourse as well... for example. “Maybe what has changed here is the people around me, or maybe my first assumptions about human feeling were flawed.. or maybe, just maybe I have learned a little on this trip, and have grown spiritually as a person and with all the knowledge”.... jesus I think I just threw up on my shoes.
can we do something about that?
No... I can't fall back on that kind of rhetorical 'coming of age' banter now because it's all so obvious and it all makes so much sense and for fuqc's sake... the whole point right now is I honestly have no idea what's going on. I have no idea how to feel about this. How am I supposed to feel about the fact that my trip, my stay, my holiday, my four months on strange, foreign shores, will come to an end in less than an already meagre-sounding 36 hours? How am I supposed to say goodbye to yet another group of people who I've shared the last few hours, or the last few months with? And in the same sentence. How am I going to work out the time in between now and when I get off that plane in Adelaide and the real world finally seems real again?
As I sit here in the purple shirt that Melanie bought me for Christmas this year, just having taken another brutally unkind trip to the toilet and listening to the spitting of Bolivian rain on the tiles outside my door, there are more questions now than there were four months ago. In my first blog all I had to write about was taking my camera out on the bike I had just bought and taking photos around the city... well what now? What have I learned?
Ohhhhh who knows... ! The last few weeks have felt like a time lapse, with nothing moving forward and the days, hours and minutes standing still. The hour of my departure doesn't seem to be getting any closer, but I know from the clock in the corner of my eye that it looms ready, just around the corner. I don't have anything left to do.
This is not my last entry. I'll let you guys know when I have the stones to make that admission on here. Also, as a sidenote; swear words are mispelled to flaunt moderators' filters... I assume that's what their objection was to my last entry... cheers guys.
What's so great about a travel blog anyway? Or a biography, or any historical novel or non-fiction writing for entertainment or any story at all ever? What is so interesting about the events, real or imagined, that someone else has written down for me and anyone else to read? More happens in any one day of any person's life, anywhere on earth, than can ever be chronicled in the pages of a book, or reproduced in film or as a song. All of the shit that you read in this blog happened to me; in real life yes, but to ME. Maybe it's true, fuck, maybe it's not, you don't know, but more important than the truth or any random detail is that it's my story. Me.
So why should anyone else care? Andd why should I care about anyone else's? When my life in real time is, without a doubt, infinitely more interesting than some words on a page. Not just because it's mine, but because I'm living it in real time, right here, ass in the hotseat, face in the mud. For fuck's sake yesterday I saw the most violent sex scene anyone is ever likely to see on this earth. Does I matter that it was two flies having at it on the table in a service station? No of course it fucking doesn't, that shit happened. If I had been reading the travel blog of some sad, attention starved, half-caste, angry, twenty-something porn addict then I could have missed those two tiny creatures dance their timeless dance 20cm from my outstandingly average chicken burger and my life would have been markedly poorer for having missed it.
I don't know why reading, hearing, or seeing the world through someone else's filtered imagination can often be far preferable to experiencing it first hand. And I guess I never will.
What constitutes selfishness? The desire for every scenario to turn out completely in one's favour? Surely not, call me selfish but I'm pretty steadfast in my hope that everything in my life is going to be chill, from now, until forever without exception... no no, selfishness must be a much more fiendish attribute to deserve it's terrible reputation. Maybe selfishness is the willingness to act upon that desire, which I'm sure we all possess? To be willing and ready to act upon it to the detriment of others around you... that seems to be a pretty fair definition of selfishness right? The guy at the supermarket who stands in the express line with 13 items, the piece of shit who pushes past you to get out of the train first, the fat fuck standing with his armpits in your face on the commute to work... all pretty straightforward examples of selfish behaviours, exhibited by the stupid pieces of shit that we, as humans, are forced into contact with every day. How about another?
On Monday I painfully ripped myself away from my velcro bed at probably something like 9am and headed off to the inter-city bus station to do some price matching on tickets for my upcoming trip to Chile. Nice day, sun, 9am traffic, plenty of buses going my way and things were cruisy. My trip was cut short about fifteen minutes in when I realised with a jolt that fifteen minutes had gone by and I was still stuck in gridlock; “this trip normally takes five or ten at most.” Thoughts of a doomed morning. Turns out there was a road block a few streets up and no one was looking like moving today.
One thing about Bolivia folks, is that it's not a place where predictions should be thrown around willy nilly. In the immortal words of Cypress Hill, “when the shit goes down, you better be ready” - wiser words are seldom spoken. When the shit goes down in Bolivia, and go down it frequently does, I've learnt that the best response is to just tread around the edges and go about my dailies in the least intrusive way possible; stay away from the shit, and it generally goes away. So I got out of my bus and walked the last kilometre or so to the terminal where I jotted some prices and, of course, couldn't buy them because I'd left my passport and money at home like the prepared, forward thinking individual that I am. Tomorrow would, I assumed, be another day though, and tomorrow, discounting an especially devious planetary alignment, there would be no road blocks.
Just to explain, people in Bolivia think of civil disobedience in their sleepy Castellano minds they don't think of organised strikes, unionism and peaceful protest; they think of dragging stones from the sidewalk and dropping them in the middle of the streets. They think of fireworks and small, colourful explosives and blocking traffic and disrupting city life and maybe hurting a few people in a small scale riot. I guess it's not their fault, that's just what the score is over here so who am I to judge?
The protesters, whatever they were protesting, (I think heard TIPNIS so most probably environmental issues, for those of you playing at home) were exercising their rights to free speech and association in their country to voice their opinions against government action... cool. Do what you want guys but maybe don't block the fucking roads downtown in the middle of the day... right? The selfish pigs! Well maybe not, when it comes to options for legitimate political action in this and other patchwork states, these guys have about sweet F.A. at their disposal. Giving up one or two days' convenient transport to the centres of activity and resigning oneself to a disgustingly healthy walk doesn't seem such a bad option when your country is staring down the barrel of an environmental face-fucking. They don't want the rainforest to be bulldozed to make way for cocoa plantations, I can settle with that.
Well I could on the first day, but day two opened up much the same as day one did, only I was approaching the terminal by private taxi this time in a feeble attempt to dodge traffic on the main routes. The journey actually took longer this time, although my hope was that the blockade had been thinned out a little on the second day. (every other time this has happened since I've been here there hasn't even been a day two) No such luck Tugzy, the protesters were sat in the same spots as they had been the day before, protesting the same things, and making my brain short the same fuses in exasperated rage. “Hijo de puta! Can't they just like picket from the sidewalks or like petition their local member of government or something, this would never happen in my country.” Well that's just the point I guess, this isn't my country. This is Bolivia, where the free run wild. Sadly, in countries like this the only options for protest open to the population are disruptive and near-violent. The government has chosen to openly disregard the voice of the stifled masses on issue after issue for so long that it has become the norm. These people know that the only way to get anything done around here is to fuck with someone's shit, maybe they weren't aiming for me specifically, but the people like me, the people who are liable to get really pissed off by stuff like this, they are the people who make the decisions around here. The privileged.
I, for one, am just happy that I live in a developed, western democratic nation. A nation where we have the full right to vote for a wide range of political candidates and parties who hold legitimately differing views with varying degrees of centrality or extremity and the population is not only enabled, but willing to engage itself in the political... wait a... uuuuh?
Ok... I got to the station and bought my tickets for Chile, as was mission on the second day, after having price checked the first day and gone home for a day's rest before retrieving my passport and... well something makes me think that the ordeal was a little unnecessary but HEY! it got me out of the house. How about those damn protesters though, am I right? Couldn't they be content with a nice, non-disruptive, peaceful protest like in the civilised nations of the west? Why be so welfish as to fuck with my shit just because you're pissed off about something? It's not my fault.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect example of the complacent and apathetic attitude that has infected our once proud western democracies. Standardised cigarette packaging? A national internet filter? A 'man' who openly denies two decades of scientific consensus about climate change could very possibly be our next Prime Minister and the majority of us, we, the young, energised generation don't give a FUCK. Across the sea SOPA, PIPA and all manner of other deliberately indecipherable acronyms threaten to destroy our personal liberties on a global scale and it takes Wikipedia thrusting a banner of warning in the English-speaking world's face for anyone to fucking notice... Maybe we could learn something valuable from these Bolivians?
It really messed with me to have some of the most important roads in the city rendered useless by blockades for two days; I have never seen anything like that be allowed to occur in my life. The flash of rage that I felt when I walked past their primitive road block was just that; a flash. A quick, selfish reaction to the situation at hand – “I don't want to walk to the bus stop! Why should I have to there is a perfectly good road there, SCREW THESE PEOPLE!” Just temporary, but a sign of the sense of entitlement that our self-centred society has instilled in my brain. Those road blocks were obviously necessary and got my attention for sure, as well as the attention of basically any of the one million inhabitants of Cochabamba who left their houses on the 17th or 18th of January 2012. For our system of government at home to continue to function in anything close to the way that we believe it should be – the population's interests being fairly represented by our elected politicians – maybe we need to mobilise like the native Bolivians did a few days ago. Things may get worse before they get better, but at least we can be sure that if voices are being heard, then things are going to get better – right now, no one is listening. No one gives a fuck about your 'peace march' or 'freedom rally' or three guys with megaphones standing in front of a statue shouting slogans; people only care about shit that affects THEM, personally. That's the situation we have created for ourselves, now we have to deal with it.
Either that or we will continue down this apathetic slide into default totalitarianism while our heads hum with anti-depressants and we all stare at eachother mildly, droning, “well at least we still have our... the... all the stuff that we have in... over here and stuff.”
Take the drugs, drink the stuff, eat the magic powder. Get back to work.
Look forward to it guys.
Foreword: Sorry this one took so long guys, I was trying to write something a little more substantial this time... and since I've spent a whole week writing this, I'm going to indulge and make write the title again. Enjoy.
Machu Picchu is a Thieves Den of Iniquity feat. Juan Carlos: Pussy
For those of you playing at home:
S = Peruvian Nuevos Soles
$1US = 2.7S (approximately)
Heresy, slander, sideways rantings from the desk of a idiot – the title alone may drive many the starry eyed traveller to revulsion, but listen close ye many. Machu Picchu is the same as any other lost city or ruined temple, the only difference is you've heard of it...
I travelled with two tall European creatures; a Dutch and a Danish, who were in clear possession of more money than I for this trip. For the purposes of one-stop cultural profiling, it's much easier to think of these two simply as 'Europeans' – they all love the same stuff and do the same shit anyway – but to avoid any nationalistic, foam-at-the-mouth backlash I guess I'm going to have to describe them individually.
The Danish boy, Mikkel, was, and still is I guess, about 1m85 with short blonde hair, blue eyes and a strangely endearing impatience – the complete Scandinavian package. Not nearly as willing as I to slum it up for the sake of saving money (I don't think many travellers realistically would be), Mikkel's likes, as far as I could discern during out travels, include hot showers, clean clothes and good meals. He dislikes eating two day old spaghetti out of a plastic bag. He insisted on being able to see every single attraction possible in the giant theme park of tourism that is South America, and he was willing to go to extreme lengths to do so – he once suggested running the last part of a walking trail just to get one fleeting, huff-and-puff glimpse of the ruins at the end. A sign of a true dedication to travelling and his desire to get the most out of our time on the road maybe, or maybe evidence of the well-oiled tourism machine at work? Who could say whether these experiences would lead to any real, tangible gain? Especially so early in the game.
Sjoerd, the other towering European, was born Dutch but had lived in Belgium most of his life until taking the obligatory gap year many of these younger Euro types seem to take at 18 years old. Machu Picchu was only the beginning of the adventure for Sjoerd; whilst Mikkel and I would be heading home a few days after Machu Picchu, Sjoerd's onward plans included Chile, Argentina and wherever else in the continent had doors high enough to accommodate him. Sjoerd's 'Lonely Planet: South America on a Shoestring' travel book was like a bible to us in the days leading up to Machu Picchu; our eventual misplacing of it was brimming over with biblical overtones and echoed, quite clearly, the events of that time. So much symbolism.
We didn't have a lot of money between us to make it to the Sacred Valley, and what we did have was severely stacked up in the European corner, but having already survived three days of eating corn mash I was confident in my ability to make ends meet. We arrived in Cuzco by bus in the early hours of the morning as bare daylight had just begun to blare down on gringo town. Finding a hotel proved difficult at first and although Lonely Planet had referred us to a certain individual out of town who 'was very smart' and would 'let rooms for free' to 'travellers' with 'no strings attached'... well, in town just seemed a much surer bet. 80S a night, $50US a night, $90US a night... near to the centre were a whole heap of beautiful, charming hotels and hostels, each one more unaffordable than the last. Starbucks was a safe, gringo haven of free Wi-Fi where we killed the first hopeless hours of that morning.
The hotel we landed in was a diamond in the rough, so to speak, in that it immediately looked like it would be just another in a long line of 'thanks but no thanks' dejected walkouts. I remember thinking, “god damn you and your lofty aspirations Mikkel, this place has fake plants, it's way too good for us... maybe the landlady will let me sleep in her clothes basket.” “We might as well try it,” replied Sjoerd after reading my mind through my eyelids – pragmatic as always. The desk clerk made the Spanish sounds indicating that a room for three would be 90S a night, my eyes darted up. “Hot shower?” Asked Mikkel. “Si”. “Wi-Fi?” “Si”. “Free morning massage?” “No”. “Well beggars can't be choosers,” I moaned begrudgingly, “lets take it... maybe if we slip the old lady over there some money on the side she'll come up early, before tendinitis takes both her knees.”
The room had TV as well and we all got comfortable taking showers and abusing the toilet. I played Fruit Ninja on my HTC while my socks dried out of the window and the rest of my clothes nestled in to their new home on the floor. I was still a little confused as to whether we'd be allowed to use the kitchen that night; I was sure we'd asked, I asked myself and remember the answer sounding something like, “you can use the cooking and for the when and you but if you can't and maybe so who knows... HAHA!” – I still have a bit of trouble translating on the go. I'd been given all these sauce sachets for spaghetti and lasagne from some previous travelling companions who had been unable to take their loot over the border to Chile and so a bit of Jamie Oliver magic at dinner time was looking likely.
The hotel was eerily empty, especially considering how good the price was with the services we were getting. That whole day plus the next morning I don't remember seeing one other guest. The tourism industry in Cuzco is a brutally cut-throat business; this hotel was nice, friendly, and full of free Wi-Fi, yet no one else had noticed. I put it down to the dodgy location on a busy highway-type street, surrounded by dusty Peruvian market-stores on the southern edge of the gringo district. Being however, as it most probably was, that any number of other, lower quality hotels closer to the main plaza were charging double or triple what we were paying for an iron sprung bed and a slap in the face at 8am, I was pretty pleased with our efforts. Cuzco as a city has made an entire industry on drawing foreign tourists in with the siren's song of the famous lost city of the Incas and matching our uncompromising greed for fancy ruins with their savage hunger for foreign dollars. With every stupid-grin, 'I'm going to Machu Picchu' alpaca wearing moron visibly leaking money as they walk down the street, I couldn't blame them for trying to sell us all t-shirts.
You would think, having said what I just did about the tourist trap that is Cuzco, that I would have cultivated a level of immunity to it's frivolous sights and pointless attractions... you would think that. You'd be wrong though – hindsight is a wonderful thing. The '12-sided stone' in the wall of a building down some shady side street; yep, we went and saw that. It does deliver what is promised though; a stone in the wall with twelve sides. I had entertained naive hopes of some sort of dodecahedron sitting on a pedestal somewhere in a square or plaza but this was actually just an actual, literal stone, with twelve sides, that had been used as a brick in the wall of a Colombian-era construction, then advertised throughout the city as a tourist attraction. The greatest joke on white people in the history of the world. Ever. Even the McDonald's on a corner of the Plaza de Armas (Cuzco's central plaza) drew me in as a tourist attraction in and of itself. In Bolivia, where I have been living for the last 3 months, there are no McDonald's 'restaurants', so a tasty piece of homesick remedy seemed like the most amazing thing in the world at 4pm that Thursday afternoon. We were visiting things in this foreign city that were not only mundane every day features in our own cities, as with the '12-sided stone', but in the case of McDonald's, actually despised and spat upon back home. “What have we become?” I mused philosophically through a mouthful of McPollo. “Fuck it, tomorrow I'm going to KFC,” grinned Sjoerd.
After removing my goggles of stupidity – having been completely tipped over the edge by a museum dedicated to an artist with an acute fetish for depicting every person to have ever lived with a neck like Gumby after a failed hanging – we set about not spending any more money. Sensible. Straightforward. Don't feed the monster. Our hotel did end up letting us use their kitchen, kind souls that they were, and we cooked up a spaghetti-smelling storm to the tinny, mobile phone sounds of Mos Def's 'Black on Both Sides' – now that's something everyone can enjoy. Of course the spaghetti was gluey and the sausages weren't skinned before cooking, but what did we care, we were doing something for ourselves, finally. Last vestiges of independent dignity in tact we sat down to eat our tolerable meal and drain some more Wi-Fi. I bagged the rest up in double-wrapped plastic for tomorrow because I was, as I myself put it, “in this shit for the long haul na'i'mean.” Mikkel stated on several occasions that he did not, at all, “know what I meant” – “I can't believe you're going to eat that with your hands.” Sorry dude, sometimes in life...
We had booked our tour of Machu Picchu at the same time as we had booked the hotel and... well to back it up a bit, that morning we had been led around by a frantic Peruvian fellow who had sorted our tour out, booked Mikkel and I a bus back to La Paz for Saturday night, told me where to get a student card for cheaper entry, and then taken all of our money. He was the kind of guy who speaks at a person, as opposed to to them, and expects all answers and questions to be given in single phrases, ten words or less. His sentences ended with an exclamation point, always. “The tour right, it's very simple!” So far so good. “You catch the bus up and walk into the valley where you'll sleep the first night!” he explained, while charging ten metres in front of us towards the student card printing office, “then in the morning wake up at 4am for breakfast, climb the mountain and see Machu Picchu!” He climbed the stairs while we chased him like frightened children, lost in the mall. “Three meals provided, lunch and dinner on Friday, breakfast on Saturday!” Sweat poured off of my face and Sjoerd smacked his head on the stairwell's low crossbeam. “Don't forget passports and YOU! (me, SHIT... uuuh) don't forget this student card!” We were at the office. “But how do I get this card? What do I need...” “TOO MANY WORDS!”... that is what he would have said... probably... if he had heard me, but he was gone already. Off in a puff of Peruvian smoke. Too fast for the gringos. Never been caught.
We woke up at 7:30am on Friday morning to phone alarms and a hot shower. Oh yes. Mr Exclamation Mark was ready and jumping at 8 to herd us into our minibus and set us on our way. “I said 8 not 8:30!” He screamed with a fat, confusing smile breaking out over his brown face. “Well you didn't, but how can I disagree with someone that eccentric,” you never know what these tourism-industry types are liable to do at any moment. After he'd whipped us down the stairs with a 10-foot lasso and chucked us into the bus with the rest of the tour, he was gone once more, just as suddenly as he had popped into our lives, never to be seen again. He told us the bus tickets Mikkel and I would be waiting for us in the hotel lobby when we got back at 9pm on Saturday. They probably would be.
Our bus-mates were speaking what I eventually discerned was Portuguese amongst themselves, or not speaking at all. I tried to read but South American transport outside major cities is notoriously bumpy and these buses are designed specifically to be way too small to stretch your legs out, but just slightly too big to be able to wedge yourself comfortably between seats. This is so that all passengers are forced to remain alert and awake throughout the journey in the event that a civil war should break out – clever design. I put my knees up on the sides of the seat in front of me and tried to get in a nice enough position – upside down with one leg behind my head and my back twisted into a figure '8'. I felt a hand from in front brush against my bare ankle and grab it. Slow down lady, I'm not into bus-voyeurism. No, she did it again, her purple jumper hiding the rolls on her flaccid forearms as she attempts to suggest that maybe my ankle is intruding into her carefully procured personal space on this SOUTH AMERICAN TOUR BUS.
I like to sit with my knees up, in kind of a foetal position in these buses because, wouldn't you know it, we don't all get beds or a Lay-Z-Boy for the 6 hour trip into the valley. Mrs Purple Jumper Frenchy Bitch has other ideas though as she makes it her personal mission to fuck with my shit from as early on in the tour as possible. The Brazilian guy next to me looks over and laughs as she explains in poor English that the seats in this vehicle do, in fact, recline, if I should desire that they do so. “I can see that quite clearly actually, as you have done a very good job in demonstrating with your own seat, reclined as it is to within 30cm of my face.” I should have said that, but I'm not that funny or clever in real life. Plus I doubt she would have understood... Remember Hitler? And how much that guy hated Jews, like he really didn't like them, and they hated him right back. Well if you take all that hate, from both sides, and bottle it. Put it right in there in a tiny glass coke bottle and slam the lid on tight... then maybe you have something comparable to the amount of pressurised hatred I am feeling for this Parisian whale right now. I can't do anything about it so I throw the bottle at her head in my mind and put my knees right in the middle of her chair. The Brazilian guy offers me a consolation wafer and another chuckle.
At lunch we stop in the last town before the Sacred Valley and have a chance to quell the shakes after being strung along a tightrope of a road that wound it's way around the mountainous highlands. The bus driver obviously didn't give any fraction of a fuck about when and how much we were going to eat as he leant against the bus with his lunch, but I thanked all manner of imaginary gods that he was, at least, a phenomenal driver. Lunch consisted of a depressingly small chicken schnitzel-type concoction with rice and a single slice of tomato, Mikkel was markedly upset with the situation. I asked for more salt and Sjoerd quickly asked me to append some sauce to that request... “let's stick to the basics man, I don't want to stress these people.” I don't know whether I'm being ironic or not, but either way Sjoerd ends up sauce-less.
Towards the end of our meal (so basically at the start – ho. ho. you nailed 'em good there Taco) another frantic Peruvian man comes in and asks us for our names on a piece of paper. He explains that our tour guide will be one Juan Carlos Q. (I oh-so-considered putting his phone number in here, but better not ay?) and that we would be meeting him at the train station for our walk into the Sacred Valley to our hotel for the night. Exhibiting the same power of dissipation as the man in Cuzco, this messenger was out of the restaurant and into the horizon. Looking around I noticed, for the first time, the extraordinary number of people travelling with us, “surely these aren't all in our tour group with one guide,” I mused hopefully to Sjoerd. “At least some of these people speak English,” he replied, “there was even a French lady on our bus.” “Don't go near her, she has a disease,” I quickly warned him, “the woman asks stupid questions.” I cast my eyes over to our bus driver, directing the others to do the same, where the creature was grilling our apathetic driver about who knows what, both hands in the air and purple jumper around her waist. Mikkel lets out a groan, “I hope she doesn't speak fucking English.” “Oh but she does, and you will see...” we had made it to Peru for the freakshow.
After the final push an hour or further down the dirt road of insanity we made it to the train station in the depths of the Sacred Valley and got out of the bus with bags and cameras, ready for a 2.5hr walk to where we were supposed to be sleeping – such blind faith, such unwavering trust they had inspired in us. We were approached by a shorter than average, smaller than average, duller than average Peruvian. He introduced himself as Juan Carlos: Tour Guide. He had an earpiece in one ear attached to his mobile phone that would ring constantly throughout our trip and a frantic look about him as he rounded up our group of around 30 tourists... “Jesus this guy is going to struggle.” He spoke hastily but in an oh-so-soft, meek whisper so that any background noise could easily steal the attention of the group away from his ill-prepared words – a cunning ploy. Obviously he spoke in Spanish so I understood only around 60% of what he was saying, but nevertheless, I know when someone needs to speak up. He took everyone's identification with the intention of taking them to the town to make tickets for our entry in the morning, and then sent us on our merry way. He would not be accompanying us. This was not, of course, before our French jester could interrupt to make a string of ingeniously stupid interjections; something about the colour of her passport or the size of that tree over there just to prove that, along with her crappy English, she didn't speak very good Spanish either. Juan Carlos stopped to dwell on this woman's ranting for way too long and the crowd around him slowly dispersed; we get to walking.
“I wonder what the hotel is going to be like, I hope it's pretty decent,” thinks Mikkel out aloud to Sjoerd and I, we had just crossed a bridge that was apparently, clearly marked with a 'do not walk on train tracks' sign which I only read after walking on the train tracks. “I saw pictures in the brochure thingy,” replies Sjoerd, “it looked pretty nice.” “Yeah I hope it's pretty nice, I want a hot fucking shower.” Our Danish hero isn't compromising on shit. I thought about adding in something about lowering our expectations a little considering we had taken a $120US tour when most other tours were starting at $150US, but then I thought again – what's the point in dashing this boy's hopes and dreams on the walk up there? We might get lucky. “I hope the dinner's good,” I choose this similar conversation as an alternative, “we could eat the guide if not though...” “he doesn't look like he has much meat on him,” laments Mikkel in all seriousness, “could be good sport though.” The mood was expectant, but somewhat sour for most of the walk through the jungle.
There's no denying it, the jungle and the valley were drop-dead gorgeous. Whenever you see a postcard or a website or a BBC documentary about some famous this or that or some lost whatever it always looks so beautifully lush and green. When you go and see something like what has been shown and advertised to you though, it never quite lives up to image that has been plastered into your brain, and so when you leave you keep the first image there, and tell yourself that's where you went. We all need to avoid that disappointment. It's like the tourism industry doesn't believe in it's own product, and has such little faith in the consumer's capacity to be awed that it slaps a green filter on every promotional camera lens, short of selling green-tinted cellophane visors to everyone walking in, they try and blur our vision too. Well anyway... that's what normally happens yeh? Like in every sub-par 'rainforest' I have ever had the faith to go and visit with expectations. But this jungle... this shit stood head and shoulders above everything else. The rain from the morning had left the whole place dripping with green brilliance and the muddy river raging to our right for the whole 2.5hour walk made me feel like I was actually in an Indiana Jones movie. It was so nice it compels me, even now, to use such terribly lame descriptions because... ugh... fuck. The forest made me take down my guard momentarily and step back in wonder at this amazing place. For a second, I didn't care about the fact that we were being taken for a ride by these slick-talking Peruvians, or that we were, in turn, exploiting the shit out of this beautiful place just by being here and adding to the erosion. The beautiful majesty of the rainforest disarmed me; it was all very carefully planned.
After the walk in we were met again by Juan Carlos and led teasingly up another path towards the town of hotels, restaurants and bars nestled in the Sacred Valley. The place may or may not have had a name, and that name may or may not have been told to me at the time, but it doesn't matter because even if I knew it I wouldn't repeat it here. The population of whatever you want to call it (Town A) consisted almost entirely of tourists staying only for one, maybe two days, solely for the purpose of greedily feasting their eyes on the lost city of Machu Picchu, before returning to the real world with pictures and bragging rights. Maybe 10% (fuck it lets just throw some random numbers out there, I definitely did NOT research this at all) of the population of the town were there for more than a few nights, and they, of course, were the staff. The existence of such an openly false shell of a town was outright depressing to contemplate – walking in with the raging river on our right and the completely engineered facade lying to our left felt like stepping into something that should never have been.
Juan Carlos' feeble attempts at instructing our 35-strong group were met with frustratingly strained ears, but the confused herd attentively followed him up the steps and towards whatever hotels he pointed his unsteady gaze towards. The earpiece dangling from his face and into his pocket made me think for a second that our phones would work all the way out here and that maybe the plastic comforts of the town extended even to a signal tower but it was not to be – somehow all the tour guides had rigged up their own private network. I wondered at their deft ingenuity. The result of this network was an annoying pause in the already scattered dialogue of Mr JC: Leader of the Pack every five minutes as he answered his phone via headset to confirm, “yes, yes we're still in the Sacred Valley, yep just coming up the road now, yep... uhuh... yeah, yeah the same one, yeah we're still walking... hold on, I just saw a dog, yep, yuhuh.. what? No no a brown one.. yeah I know.” Relaying integral information about the trip to those who need to be kept in the loop.
We were shown to our hotel and instructed to meet back at this restaurant in an hour for briefing and whatever goes with that.”Oh by the way I need your passports so that I can get your tickets for the morning.” “Juan Carlos, would you care to explain to me otro ves why it is exactly that you need my passport and why I can't get the ticket myself, thus remaining in full, assured possession of my valued personal effects?” He didn't say much but it was obvious he was in a hurry so I begrudgingly gave him my shit and he scurried away into the secret guides club for guides to line up and get our tickets. The blind leading the blind.
Back at the restaurant an hour later and spirits were less than high, but definitely not subdued. An equally lost companion of Juan Carlos had taken over proceedings, which consisted mainly of reassuring the restless mob that Juan Carlos: Trusted Individual, was not about to elope with our identities and start a banking scam in Nigeria. He was, in fact, a entirely lovely young man who would, no doubt, be returning with our passports and tickets as soon as was humanly possible. Tensions rising. I finished my paltry serving of chicken as soon as I had started it and moved into a chair away from the food to prepare myself for the melee that was bound to ensue upon Juan Carlos' return. The restaurant was divided into two sections, the lower was all tables and chairs for travellers to sit and eat at, while the higher – connected to the first by a small set of stairs – had one lonely table with a few chairs and the kitchen tucked away at the back. I sat at the top so I could remove myself from the pit of despair that the lower section threatened to descend into.
So after like an hour of waiting and like the shittiest dinner in recorded history we were like... fucking pissed. Everyone, not just me, and not just my English-speaking friends, oh no. Everyone was pissed. He walked into the room with the air of someone who was about to do something important, but dispelled that illusion as soon as he opened his mouth – come on dude, can't you at least speak up? For fuck's sake weren't you ever forced to be in a choir in school? DIAPHRAGM!!! He kept scurrying around the room evasively, changing position every few sentences to reposition himself away from the pack that would inevitably form around him each time. He must have felt pretty intimidated and I'm not trying to be a complete bastard here... but surely it's not that hard to be prepared before the meeting so you can take control of this sort of situation and give the people the information they want and need to hear... surely. These are the questions that keep me awake at night. Everyone eventually quietened down under the understanding that Juan Carlos: Leader, was about to explain everything. He assumed his final position atop the stairs only after sampling every other possible position in the small eatery; “come on son,” I pleaded under my breath – maybe I should have pleaded in Spanish.
He started to talk; “get up at 4am tomorrow, breakfast here, head to Machu Picchu (murmurs) either walking or by bus.” These snippets of information came first, then after this no-doubt meticulously planned opener our hero seemed unsure of how to proceed. “Fuck, we're done for” I turned to Mikkel to see his similarly knowing look of doom, “and this fuck still has my passport...” I struggled to stress how completely the fact of my passport being in the hands of someone I wouldn't trust with a pencil case was stressing me out. The purple French woman appeared at the front of the crowd once again to ask a ridiculous question – first in broken Spanish, and then, forgoing that effort, speaking French -TO ME- and imploring me with her stupid eyes to translate for her. My temper was really starting to fray, I don't deal well with large amounts of stress and Juan Carlos: Invalid was really pushing it when he stopped the entire discussion to answer PurpleFrench's question. He stopped everything. Everyone has to wait. “I can't deal with this,” I said again to Mikkel and Sjoerd, as if they couldn't already see it. Mikkel laughed at my creeping insanity and pointed out nicely that they had already retrieved their passports and gotten their tickets for tomorrow. “Fuck this then, I can't stand another second watching this circus of ineptitude, let's go to bed. Dinner was at 9, we went to bed at 11:30.
To be fair (for the record, fairness is not one of the main objectives of this blog) Juan Carlos and many of the other inept guides in that rape dungeon of tourist greed are more or less victims just the same way we are; victims of insatiable human greed and selfishness. The companies, which we, as tourists, of course have to hire to get that irresistible glimpse of the ancient, lost city, are known for venomously cutting costs and corners in order to provide the cheapest tour possible in a ridiculously competitive market. Can't fill your bus? Well you just wasted a whole lot of money then Cheechy, meanwhile Enrique Gonzalez-Trump over there just made bank by slicing $10 off of the price his tour, thereby selling more tickets and filling bus after rickety bus. Under-training guides and providing soup kitchen-grade slop for meals is the name of the game and if you can't handle the pangs of conscience, then you're obviously not going to be wringing much money out of this international tourist attraction; ripe for exploitation as it is. The guides suck and the food sucks and the accommodation sucks and the organisation sucks... but we don't give a fuck... the tourists, the gringos, the sightseers, the photographers, the snapping beasts on the buses... We. Don't. Give. A. Fuck. All we care about is those few hours inside the pearly gates when we can drink in the experience, not of witnessing the awe-inspiring remnants of an ancient, lost culture – the reason we all like to think we are visiting – the draw is of experiencing something that few people in this world will ever get to experience. Derive the validation.... oooooh that sweet, sweet validation.
On the morning of the big day we woke up at 4am, as stipulated, and stumbled to the restaurant for our breakfast of unsurprisingly low quality – a piece of bread with butter, no amount of irony can accurately depict my exasperation here. The lack of surprises continued for the next hour as news came and came again that Juan Carlos was still scampering around the annals of the guides club photocopying passports and making tickets... there really are no words here, why was that still happening now? The plan had changed and now we were to wait for JC at the entrance to Machu Picchu. That's, 'wait for the missing tour guide to arrive with my documents of identity, in the rain, while he takes the next three hours to... ok, I'm really struggling here guys. So we get to the top, wait a little, I stress out and Mikkel takes a picture of me doing so which he will later claim to be me 'almost crying'. Well fuck it, I'm not even going to deny it, but contrary to the collective disillusionment, Juan Carlos: Punctual Human arrives eventually, and eventually we were able to walk through those magical gates at the top of the old mountain and feast our senses upon what we'd all been waiting for. YES! YES! YES! “I've been to Machu Picchu and you haven't; EAT IT!” The roller-coaster of emotion, anger, loathing, sadness, resignation, elation, resentment, insane laughter... those kind of feelings, you know.
Juan Carlos' tour was pretty reasonable, for the record – that was, of course, after he had tried and failed to palm me and my friends off to an English-speaking tour guide to make his life easier. Looking back, maybe blurting out, “mate it's find I can fucking understand fine!” wasn't the best way to explain the situation to our Spanish-speaking guide but whatever. We got to learn about Incas knowing the difference between magnetic North and geographic North and how they built the tiers of ground on top of the mountain and what kind of people lived there and it was all very interesting trivia because sometimes it's jolly to know what one's looking at. We walked along a path carved into the cliff face to the Inca Bridge and took photos of that and when the morning fog cleared we were treated to a postcard view of the mountain top. We were delivered all that we were promised and drank it in greedily. We all took the stereotypical tourist shots and gave in to mindless consumption because, as I have rationalised, when something is as hyped as Machu Picchu, there really is no point in playing the dignified, self-conscious prick who refuses to conform to the tourist image... we have made it this far and we're all here for the same reason, let's not lie to ourselves. Stand over there... come on buddy. Make a peace sign. Say hi to mum. BIIIIIIG SMILES... now that wasn't so hard was it? There's one for Facebook.
We left at around 11am to climb back down the mountain, sated and satisfied in every way – happy with our experience despite the difficulties beforehand. Walking out of the city I spoke at 'please overhear this conversation' volume about the devastating landslide that had ravaged the site's promised beauty: “really sucks about that earthquake hey... how long did they say? Closed for 6 months, fuck it's lucky we got here early then hey.” Life seems so much more enjoyable when everything's done and sorted. Four hours before I would have stabbed any and everyone if I had heard such a stupid joke made by a stupid dickhead walking past me, but we were done, everything was cool and we didn't need to see Machu Picchu any more. Bragging rights: obtained.
Juan Carlos was visibly more relaxed too, when we made it down the hill and back to our crappy restaurant he asked us how we liked it and his friend smiled and shook my hand. “I was ready to cut you open last night dude,” I laughed to him; I doubt he spoke English but he laughed and nodded vigorously as well. Mikkel was a little pissed that we didn't see the sun bridge or whatever other part of the city there was that we could have seen and had our photos taken in front of, and we didn't get to climb Waynu Picchu either or probably do a whole heap of other stuff... but I didn't care one bit, in fact I still don't. And I didn't care as we were leaving the lines of people and swarms of cameras at the top of the hill that our footprints had just contributed to 1cm of erosion per year at the globally-protected site. I honestly don't know where the whole conservation argument ends up, because, as it is traditionally understood, we are supposed to be 'looking after these beautiful sites so that our grandchildren can enjoy them'... but if in the act of being there alone we are contributing to Machu Picchu's destruction, then what? We have to look after it by not going there so that our grandchildren can have the opportunity to fuck it up themselves... or they could not go there either and the whole thing goes on and on... in the end we might as well just bomb the whole thing and build the world's biggest interactive porn and water-slide themed amusement park in the rubble? I'm sure they could charge more for drinks.
I don't regret going to Machu Picchu, and I'm not going to tell you not to go there or to shy away from the thing just because of some imagined responsibility you think you have to some bearded, history major hiking enthusiast who hasn't been born yet. For me, or anyone who has tasted the deliciously forbidden fruit to turn around now and say, “oh hold up guys, no no we better not have any more, there are plenty of pictures on Wikipedia,” whilst wiping crumbs of forbidden fruit pie from around their mouth, for anyone to do that is hypocritical and really pretty retarded. It's all well and good to be concerned about the planet being a non-renewable resource, but in this case... well I'm sure there's an oily seal somewhere that could do with the attention. Machu Picchu is not of directly vital importance to anyone other than the citizens and government of Peru who, by the looks of things, are prepared to drain it for every cent it's worth. I walked away knowing that I had caved in to the massive tourist machine that is Cuzco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, and I was happy with that. I am happy with that. I got to see it and, despite all the hassle and bullshit, it was worth it for that fleeting moment of satisfaction. My feelings were manufactured by the machine and I know it, but they felt good, so fuck it. Anyone out there who thinks they had some higher calling and greater purpose in seeing Machu Picchu is talking a wheelbarrow full of pretentious, hipster shit. Go see another ruin, there are plenty more where that came from and they don't charge 15S for water at the gate.
Go and see Machu Picchu, the oldest theme park in the world. Take your camera and your gringo jacket. Take the picture. Do the tour. Gawk, deliberately open-mouthed at the mildly fascinating historical artefacts. Buy a hot dog.
But don't hire Juan Carlos as your guide... he's a fucking pussy.
I have spent a more than reasonable share of my time in South America ensnared in ridiculous and, some would say, unfortunate situations: sitting for 5 hours in a La Paz coffee shop waiting for my passport details to be faxed, waiting in airports and bus terminals for delayed transport, rolling paper dice in a bar in Oruro... I get better and better at killing time with each hilariously unforeseen mishap. Shut out the noise, turn down the anger. These stupid happenings of the world are, of course, unavoidable – sometimes in life things happen dealwithit – but there is something else that I have been trying to explain to my fellow travellers with limited success for the last few weeks. In an almost proud, and definitely self-assured and confident way, I would like to proclaim to all my readers right now: yo tengo suerte... I am one lucky motherfucker.
I'm not trying to cram some hopelessly preaching drivel bullshit down your throats here, please keep reading – this is not thank you to Jesus/Allah/LRH/Flying Spaghetti Monster for being alive and whatever piece of blah blah trash can scummery. No. Let's consider for a second that my being rich (enough), privileged (enough), and in full possession of the correct number of eyes, limbs and digits does not constitute luck in the strict sense of the word, but merely a pretty decent start in life. I am going to be so bold as to suggest that I have luck beyond merely being able to wake up in the morning and 'thank the lord for another beautiful God-created morning'. Lately anyway, I have been graced with the sort of luck that makes you turn around halfway through the day and throw the rest of the world your two favourite fingers because you know that no matter what happens, you're gonna make it to the end of this fucked up maelstrom of an experience intact, all goals reached, and probably with a new pair of shoes. As I sit here reminiscing on the experiences of my last 8 or 9 days I can finally breathe safely and close my eyes calmly. I sit in my favourite spot under the balcony with the afternoon sun dying over the lawn and listen to the sounds of home hum underneath the clear music in my head. All that is left to do is to ask the best question a person can ever have the privilege of being able to ask – “what the FUCK happened?”
In the much-celebrated void that always constitutes the week between Christmas and New Years I was in the Salar de Uyuni (salt, desert, geysers, whatever) in the South of Bolivia, but split up with my companions on the 30th and headed for La Paz – thus began my odyssey. Thirty hours of bus travel later and no problems. Well that's not really luck is it? No, is the answer, no it is not. It sure as hell tired me out though, and getting off of the bus in La Paz at 8am New Year's Eve meant no opportunity for sleep for the rest of the year – sounds heavy. New Years always involved a bit of luck though, and after barhopping for the hour leading up to 11:30 – including getting kicked out of one ass-crack of an establishment for ruining their decorations before midnight (have a cry mate) – we finally found somewhere to drink beers, play jenga with the local floozy and let off our assorted fireworks/explosives. Who's going to tell me a successful night on the most over-hyped day of the year isn't a little bit lucky?...
...that's what I thought.
The real shit started on the second of January; me and my two European chums set out to explore the highest lake in the world and the most famous ruins in the universe; Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu. On New Year's Eve I spent about 500Bs... I had 1000 left for the next 5 days. We caught the cheapest bus from La Paz to Copacabana (on Lake Titicaca) on the afternoon of the 2nd and the chase was on. Two internationally renowned landmarks in 5 days. Budget thinner than a destitute indigena boy. No room for error. Fingers crossed.
Lovely French Girl was nice enough to give me some corn + cheese concoction that her host mum had made for her, although I have a sneaky feeling that I may have merely saved it from the bin (sooorrrryyyy mooooom). I ate this mushy native galoobah out of it's leafy wrapping with a coin for the next two days; money saved, luck demonstrated. For those of you who wouldn't consider it lucky to be forced to eat free food with the last money in your pocket, whilst also gulping down the irony that said metal money would be sadly insufficient to buy even the smallest amount of real food, let alone real cutlery... well guess what, sometimes, you have to make your own luck. Whilst Dutch Sjoerd and Danish Mikkel ate their eggs and toast for breakfast I sat fast in the smiling knowledge that I was going to make it to Machu Picchu in a few days, despite whatever shit the world could rain down.
So rain it did, just to test me. The morning of the 4th threw down the gauntlet, along with 5 hours of rain, on to every pair of socks and underpants I had, along with a few shirts – my clothes smelled of gauntlet. The hotel was shit-cheap and I paid 5Bs less for sleeping on a mattress on the floor which I think actually turned out softer than the beds – suck one Bolivia, tengo suerte. Thanks to the rain we didn't have time to get to the Inca ruins on the island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I wasn't terribly upset at missing what was purported to be a lovely specimen of a table made out of big rocks sitting on the Northern end of some island. At least I still had some corn left.
My clothes dried in the sun and were not stolen by locals – always good to note. We grabbed a bus back in Copacabana and headed for Peru and Machu Picchu. My corn was running low but spaghetti was on the menu if we could buy ingredients in Cuzco; undoubtedly the gringo capital of the world. At the border I was told by guards that my passport had no entry stamp for Bolivia, even though my immigration papers were all good. Some brain moron three months ago in Santa Cruz Airport had obviously neglected to finish the final day in his three-day document stamping course at retard university and had almost had me packing my bags to the Australian embassy, but it was not to be. Sweaty palms all round. I still had to sit stressing for twenty minutes while Mr Border Patrol teasingly hovered his stamp of approval over my papers... I don't know what I was worried about though, everything always works out – tengo suerte.
In Cuzco we were treated to free Wi-Fi at Starbucks for three hours of Thursday – I say 'we', but really it was just me because Sjoerd's laptop wasn't picking up the signal... and I say 'Wi-Fi', but really I mean Facebook. The hotels near the main plaza were expensive and with corn supplies running low I really couldn't afford to splash out unnecessarily, we found a place a few blocks away though; free Wi-Fi, cable, hot shower, hotel soap, and they let us use their kitchen. COME ON! Thank the big fella for short, accommodating South American women. Our spaghetti was sticky as shit, but you know I bagged it up – shave another four meals of my budget and take that sticky mush to the bank my friends. Unfortunately though, a coin will not suffice as cutlery when eating spaghetti.
Machu Picchu came and went (more on that in Week 11.5 – Machu Picchu is A Thieves Den of Iniquity feat. Juan Carlos: Pussy) and the 30+ hour journey back to Cochabamba was underway. So far, other than getting hustled (with admirable professionalism) into a cheap tour and an expensive bus ride, my luck was holding together about as well as my bag – sturdy but wearing. Our guide didn't steal my passport as I had feared he may for all of Friday night, and while food portions were laughable, I had already spent myself laughing at the fact that my corn was gone and the spaghetti was wearing thin. Things couldn't be better. Nothing to be displeased about – plus, fuck it, I saw Machu Picchu. (it's actually fucking amazing, for the record) On the way out of the valley I volunteered for our party of three to be switched into another bus in a last-minute shuffling of numbers to make up seats. This seemed to be a straight cock-up of a decision on my part at first glance as I looked to be stuck in a sardine tin of a back seat for the entire 6 hour journey home but lo and behold, luck had one more strange ace to throw my way... best believe it people, miracle boy at work.
Landslide. HAH! Deal with that Aidan you over-confident, good luck touting, corn-munching pleb. About twenty minutes out of the Sacred Valley the dirt road snaking around the side of the mountain was pounded into a pile of immovable rocks and collapsing dirt hillside by one of many landslides, triggered no doubt by a combination of the last night's rain and the universe's cruel, pitiless whim. There was less than zero chance of the debris being cleared within... well ever in the world really... and we had a 6 hour trip back to Cuzco with bus tickets to La Paz for 10:30pm. It was three. But if ever spirits are to be dashed, surely it is only for the purpose of amplifying that feeling of elation when you find out that – just as was promised by the luck in this world that waits patiently for anyone willing to find it – it's gonna be chill. Picture my face when I realised that we three were among the first chosen to walk the broken road on foot to meet up with a replacement bus on the other side of the chasm. Picture me laughing at my dejected self only fifteen minutes before. Crying with laughter. Cackling madly. Screaming. “EAT SHIT YOU TRAPPED-ASS AVALANCHE VICTIM FAGGOTS!” The filthy proles faded away into the distance as the luckiest bus in the world made it's way back to Cuzco, but time was tight. The noose was tightening.
The whole bus of 19 sang along to Bob Marley, Beatles and Argentinian folk songs back to Cuzco until Mr Ukulele had no more songs left. “Everything's gonna be alright, everything's gonna be alright.” Bob Marley's timelessly hopeful refrain stuck in my head – that's my favourite god damn song of all time and I couldn't wipe the smile off my face after singing it.
Back into Cuzco at 9:30, collect the tickets, hail a cab on the road and get spotted by a cop car instead. After admonishing us for our muy delincuente behaviour they drove us for free to the bus terminal; no bribes, no hassle, no brutal kidnapping. Tenemos suerte. More trouble with passports and some inadvisable lying to imigration officials at the Peru-Bolivia border. Don't tell them you have paid when you haven't Aidan, don't push your luck big boy. The stamp hovered and fell again and my potentially brown trousers breathed a sigh of relief. Just in time for the Cuzco to La Paz bus and from there a quick race in at the urination station and it was one more bus to Cochabamba. Of course the last bus would be the slowest and of course we would be overtaken by like ten other speed racers through the hills on the way home but that's just what happens I guess, we still made it home and although I owe Mikkel like $70AUD it's all going to be cool.
At the end of this story that, truly was more hectic to live than it was to condense and tell in a few thousand words, you may be ready to throw fruit with your screaming questions. “Who gives one third of a swear word about your gay travels?” Well not many probably, and maybe this was just a handy vehicle for my bragging ego to showcase the trip that I just had and some of the stupid shit that happened. I really did get lucky with some of the stuff that happened and I wouldn't have been able to survive without some help from friends and well placed hunger-striking but that's not the point. The shit that the world throws down every single day is unavoidable; counting something like a rockslide or lack of money or a rainy day as back luck isn't a fair call, in fact it's not even defensible, it's straight out hold-my-hand-a-little-bitch whingeing – although if you'd told me at the time I would have cut you up.
Bad luck is the constant batter and thrash of the world on the life of every sorry bastard who has ever dared to exist in it, but there is not time enough in the day or energy enough in my bones to write a ranting tirade against that unfortunate truth. Best I can do is write one about the good things that happened, the ridiculous glimpses of good fortune that chanced upon me, just as they chance upon everyone, every single day. The static, the noise, the rest; is entropy.
So there are six days left in this year and what promises to be the hardest year in memory is fast approaching, there are a few things that I'm kind of scared/excited about next year and so rather than just list them out like a faggy little diary entry here, I'm going to keep with the running theme of this blog, and talk shit.
I started deciding (read: began to admit to myself) around a month ago that if I was going to make the progress and produce the output that I want to I'm going to have to cut back on the drinking. Drinking turns watching lawn bowls into an extreme sport, it makes an awkward conversation with a half-introduced stranger seem like the most hilarious night out you've ever had and it is better value and less effort than 6 months of dancing lessons with Michael Jackson, but it kills drive and saps energy like a beautiful, succulent, thrice distilled and ten years aged... ok I think I've made my point. I decided that in 2012 I'm going to be drinking only 52 days. For those fucks amongst you that decided to get pedantic and ask what counts as drinking and when a day is defined as and how long I'm allowed to go before I can give up and sink back into a gutter in a happy, giggling stupor; here it is.
A 'day' for the purposes of this endeavour will be defined as the period between the middays of two consecutive days. This is to allow for ample opportunity to go out drinking while equally disallowing the prospect of prolonged Friday, Saturday or Sunday seshes that kill the first half of the next week.
A day of drinking will be defined as any day where an alcoholic beverage is consumed, be it one cruiser, or two goon sacks. This will most probably give rise to situations where I won't want to drink any amount of alcohol (the intention really)but then when I do drink, I'll see it as a waste of a day (and money) if I don't get drunk... I guess I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.
The bet (I guess I'll call it a bet now) will last all year and will be binding for the whole year because of... ok, here's the kicker (sorry mum)... the tattoo
I intend on getting a tattoo on my right thigh just above where average length shorts would sit so that it will be hidden in most situations, this tattoo will state, clearly and in bold, plain lettering, the main parameter of this bet. Namely, it will say '52 DAYS'. This is so that I can't wail out on the deal I've made with myself without incurring a serious damage to myself – if I bail I'll have a permanent reminder of it and people – only people who see me in really short shorts I guess – will forever be asking me what the tattoo means. I'm not really prepared at this point to be explaining to a lifetime of strangers that the tattoo represents a bet I made with myself when I was 20 that, incidentally, I failed, because I'm a pussy ass piece of shit that can't even limit his alcohol intake for 52 lousy weeks; here, take this dignity 'New Friend A', I think I'm finished with it.
By the way, for those of you playing at home, I will gladly be taking any bets on this if anyone wants to play. That would actually make this so much more interesting so please, if you have a little extra coin lying around and feel like putting it up against your old boy Tugzy, now is the time retards.
So that's it, that's my big plan for the new year. I know there will probably be some that will protest and scream and cry and throw glass due to the fact that this post, being as it is on the Projects Abroad Blog, should have something to do with Bolivia and Projects Abroad and volunteering and shit like that, so here you go:
Last week was fun. I finished my placement last week. It was fun. Today is Christmas. Yesterday we ate food. Tomorrow I am going to the Salar. I hope it will be fun. Sometimes in Bolivia there are too many dogs. Thanks for reading my things.
Christmas is coming up, and who needs presents when you've got family right? Everyone apparently, but luckily my family are back in Australia, so I don't have to shell out for the shitty gifts that I would no doubt be buying at 8pm tonight as shops closed and people fought people to get their hands on the last tickle-me-whatever in Toys-R-Us. I'm really not sure how I feel about Christmas... it's got the tackiness and capitalist sheen of Valentines day but the beautiful family-togetherness sentiment of a season one Simpsons episode. So much to love, but oh so much delicious potential for loathing as well.
Today I will meet my lovely French girlfriend, whose interests aside from being lovely and French include having short hair, liking chocolate and spelling her name with an accent, just after lunch and run some errands. It will not be an exceptionally memorable day, first we will go to the airline office to change my flights from January to February, then we will go to the markets and buy Christmas presents for our respective host families in anticipation of tomorrow's festivities. (over here presents and shit are on the 24th) We will walk past other latecomers doing just the same in the markets, in the streets, we will ride with them in the busses, and wait behind them in inevitably long lines at every store. Store owners will take our money.
Tomorrow my time will be split between my host family and my girlfriend's, both of whom have invited us to their respective family get-togethers on Christmas eve and everyone at each house will roll eyes behind amused smiles as children tear at eachother's eye sockets to open their presents first. Decorations will be mangled and plastic will crunch underfoot. The cake will have fruit in it and, as always, will be too fucking dry to eat alone, Christmas encourages liquid consumption. At around 1pm I plan to unfasten my belt and tie it around my head, ninja style, down a bottle of wine and make for the clubs – partying is my Christmas present and everyone will know that the children are asleep, having burned more calories that day than your mother in law could in a week of gym visits.
The next day will be hot and lazy and the day after that will be equally so as the year that was 2011 winds down and idly shuffles into the past. The rest of this year will be predictable as hell.
I guess that's the main thing that should be looked forward to at Christmas time; it is a time to relax and get fat on predictability with no surprises, no sharp, jolting shocks and no rude awakenings. Christmas is not a time to try something new, and Christmas is sure as sugar not the time to try and do anything important. We have all done this before and we will do it again every year from now until we are dead, whether you are happy, sad, annoyed, bemused, fed up or disinterested with Christmas time probably doesn't have anything to do with Christmas itself but more with how you are feeling about life in general right now.
I'm pretty happy with this Christmas. Right now I'm sitting outside in my favourite spot, writing on my laptop and listening to Nancy Sinatra's woeful laments about her baby having shot her down. Tranquillity and peace. The only thing that I can't handle today is that this god damned Christmas lark has gotten so far into my skull that I am really finding it impossible to write about anything else. These meandering few paragraphs are not intended to be anything special, nor are they written to send word to back home about how I'm doing, where I'm going, or what is happening over in Bolivia. The only reason I am writing about fucking Christmas at all is so that, hopefully, once I let all the grotty sentimentality ooze out of me like pus from the festive sore that has infected my brain, I won't feel the need to write about Christmas any more.
I didn't want to write this, but a fat man in a red suit is holding me at gunpoint and he won't let me go until the page smells of holiday cheer. Here you go you jolly, bearded bastard. Take my morning, take my soul and take my Sunday sleep-in... now stay the fuck away.
Coming soon... an interesting post.
Two very separate realisations have been slowly creeping up on my consciousness of late, knives drawn and sneaky like two burglars who have both decided to rob the same house, on the same night, at the same time, going or the same antique necklace... ok so that analogy is broken. But say I welcomed them both in with hot chocolate and smores, just say. “Come on in fellas, grab a chair, stir your lil' drinkies, it's story time.” Now consider for a second that those metaphorical burglars were not, in fact metaphorical at all, but real people – that they were actually you, the reader... and there was only one of them... and he (or she, ok ok) wasn't carrying a knife, trying to break into a house, but actually sitting at a computer and reading this blog. Imagine that... well, now here we are.
Ok, so that was confusing, pretty stupid and ultimately meaningless... well now you know how it feels EVERY GOD DAMN DAY trying to talk to people that I have to – HAVE TO – talk to to get anything done. I have to talk to them in another language. I'm not complaining no, but I'm just trying to give you guys a little glimpse of the struggle, because, in this blog, I, Aidan Jones, am attempting to give you, the reader, as true a representation as I can of my experiences here in Bolivia – how lovely am I?
So those two realisations that I started on about before, well the first one may be materialising to some of you more on-the-ball readers right now – the first realisation that I have come to in the last few days is that; 'learning Spanish is hard'. Or maybe it's that I just realised that it's not hard like maths or physics or chemistry or dating is hard, because all of those things are nice and incremental. In maths, you get a problem that you can't solve, then the teacher says “turn your books to page 145” and you do, and perched snugly in the top right hand corner of page 145 is a nicely worked solution to the problem that you couldn't answer before. You study it, and then you can do that question. Nice. Learning another language though, is a constant game of learning with no real incremental learning curve to it. You learn new words; nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives and the other little joiny ones – and you feel nice because you can say “today I learned 10 new words”. But then you go to the Aerolineas Argentinas office to try and change your flights home from January 10th to some time in February and the man with a pimple on his chin and a really small stud on his upper lip talks at you and you try to understand and tell him in rushed sputters “mas lento! Mas lento!” but that just makes him talk faster because he's getting a little impatient now and maybe he keeps glancing hastily at the blonde streak in the fringe of your otherwise dark hair and he seems confused at the fact that someone with a distinctly South American complexion can't even understand the simple phrase “glaba jeeba flaba nanana haruuuu flajeeba jajeba” in his exceedingly simple language and suddenly he's talking about more Januaries and months and words that you don't recognise from the Spanish classes that you've been taking so you try and remember back to the last word he said you vaguely recognised but all that tiempo trawling through sus recuerdos has left you siete o ocho mas palabras behind and god damn (HIJO DE PUTA) you just typed a Spanish palabra into your blog without italicisingFUCK!!...
Yeah, that's what learning another language is like.
Ok so that was realisation number one, more of an ongoing frustration, realisation number two is a lot more clear in my mind; and here it is. 'The CochaBanner, whilst being a good publication for what it is, is and always will be sadly understaffed and ill equipped for serious journalism.' Now that sucks a little bit more for me, considering journalism, or at least writing, is the 'career' (hah! Scratch 'writing', read 'street urchinry') that I want to pursue. Obviously, as a publication run solely by volunteers save our gracious editor Ximena, the staff turnover is extremely high and so no real team environment can ever develop between the writers. Nor can the magazine afford to expand into special feature issues or more pages per issue, because at some times, there are no writers on staff at all. This means that, for someone who, like myself, spend an admittedly unusually large proportion of their time writing, the pages of the CochaBanner are not sufficient to display... hold up there Aidan, say it how it is, we all know you're being selfish, just say it...
I CAN WRITE FOR MORE THAN THE MAGAZINE HAS TO OFFER
oooooh that felt good... So basically this blog has been my outlet for a lot of material since I've been here, and I'm sure will continue to do so as I continue to find more cool shit to write about. Also though, I now intend to start posting stories that are meant for, and have been submitted to Ximena for the CochaBanner on this blog, because I have realised that it may be up to 6 months before they are actually run in print, by which time I will have boosted from this lovely continent and, thus, will be unable to acquire a copy of my work to show others.
Two realisations, there you go guys, I hope you enjoyed. By the way, next time you try and rob my house, metaphorical or otherwise, you better come armed to the fucking teeth motherfucker. Never bring a knife to a gun fight.
I came to South America because of what I had heard. I had heard about the beautiful Spanish language, and the beautiful Latin-American women. I had heard about the towering Andes, and the sprawling Amazon rainforest. The markets, the music, the dancing, the political turmoil and the wonderful people and the food, the food the food. Most of all though, I had heard about the football.
For many South American’s, football is life, and Bolivians are no exception. Since I arrived in Cochabamba in mid-October, one of my Bolivian friends, Andres the San Jose Fan, had been urging and urging me; “you have to come and see my team play, our fans are the craziest in all of Bolivia.” With an endorsement like that it I don’t know how it took me two months to get to a game – no irony here by the way, craziness at a football game is something that lit my eyes up instantly. On Wednesday the 7th of December though, after stalling and stalling, I finally made it. The team that Andres the San Jose Fan was talking about was, of course, San Jose Oruro, and the game was against Cochabamba’s Aurora for a place in the semi finals. The crowd did not disappoint, nor did the game itself, and I’m sure that this story will end up being about one of those two things… but which one – game or fans? Who knows?
We marched through the gates of the stadium at 7pm ready for anything. If the hype was to be believed, the real show would be in the stands tonight – come for the football, stay for the party. My head buzzed with excitement. The flares stuffed in my socks and hidden by my jeans caused a few drops of sweat on the palms of my hands as I walked through the entrance. I was flanked by four khaki police officers sporting shotguns and ‘don’t mess with the 5-0’ stares, but it was all cool. Inside, the place was filling quickly, but we were still an hour out from kick off. I pulled the flask of whiskey out of my pants and had a sip – mission contraband: success. This small smuggling operation set the scene somewhat for the rest of the evening, with the San Jose contingent, of which we were a part, fighting a constant tug-of-war battle with police for control of the Southern stands. No one seemed to care that lighting fires and throwing toilet paper on the pitch isn’t generally considered an integral part of a football match, atmosphere was the ultimate goal here.
First minute, GOAL! AAAAAAAAGH YES YES YES! “This is it!” screamed the sea of white, (in Spanish, obviously) “the game is ours, a lead one minute in.” San Jose had to win 3-0 to get through to the semi finals, due to an administrative squabble that I do have a tenuous understanding of, but will not burden you with here. Suffice to say, the San Jose contingent were not pleased with the prospect of losing the game on paper, even though the first leg of the final, in Oruro, had been victory for them as well. Chants of “no puedes ganar en la mesa, necesitas ganar en la cancha” could be heard throughout the game. Turning to Andres the San Jose Fan – incidentally, he was one of the heads charged with supplying kerosene for the game and not a safe person to be baiting in this situation – he expressed to me what could only be fairly described as ‘extreme distaste’ at the referee’s handling of the game. Apparently, he said, the bastards had bought him. Whether or not this claim was indeed true is not for me to debate here, and will probably never be known – at least not in print. Such accusations are inevitable though, and in a country with a system as overtly open to manipulation as ours, they are also, sadly, all too plausible. Nevertheless, the game should be won on the pitch, with heart – “that’s what San Jose is all about,” said Andres the San Jose Fan; referee or no referee, 3 goal deficit or no 3 goal deficit, rain, hail, snow, fire, or bloody murder, and always with the flares firing overhead.
The fans grew restless as the night wore on; the frenzy in the stands easily matching that on the pitch for intensity. This game is limited for time, 90 minutes with a 10 minute break halfway, but the fans and the crazies dressed in sky blue to the north and white to the south, they know there is more to tonight’s proceedings than just 22 guys kicking their little ball around. I’m still not sure where the real action is tonight, I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at, and what I may have unwittingly become a part of. Scream the maddening chants and light the fuses on fire, this is football.
Half time came and went, and so did another goal, and the crowd were whipped into a frenzy for the remaining thirty minutes of the game, but at full time, no third goal, no fairytale ending – the final score 2-0, San Jose. A feeling of bemused disorientation descending over the Eastern stands was at once a stark contrast to the energy I had felt since kick-off. It felt like all game had been leading up to something – a beautiful victory maybe, but that was not to be – we had been cut adrift without a climax and the horde wanted more. Before I had a chance to look, the stands around me were emptying of fans, as Andres the San Jose Fan marched past he threw me a quick warning, “they’re waiting at the exit and we’re going to meet them.” I hastily put two and two together and guessed that I wasn’t going to meet them with him – as Dylan Moran once said, “I’m not a fighter, I’m a bleeder” – my sentiments exactly. Looks like my foreign friends and I will be sitting tight inside the stadium until the violence outside subsided. So is that it? Is it done? I had no intention of running out all ‘Braveheart’ and plunging, face first, into a line of angry Aurora fans, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe the final melee outside the stadium’s walls is just another act in this brutal tragedie. The fire, the explosions, the chants, the frenzy; all game they had been screaming and thrashing about, but for what? Was this really the main event? And if so, then what was I, the fragile Australian reporter, doing here at all?
We snuck out with a thousand or so other people away from the strange shift of events out the front of the stadium – out into the night. I went home to change out of my San Jose shirt – I’m not sure what the bold, blue 'V' stands for now. Walking back through the still-buzzing streets I heard a car alarm, the last few fireworks cracking off into the night sky, the last kicks of the struggle. Did I just attend a football game, or a planned and carefully contained riot? Did I just run away from the main event? My nerve failing at the last second… did I just sneak out the back door of this entire story? I spot three people walking down the street, looking disheveled and worn; “one of those fuckers kicked me in the back!” Laughs Christian with a smile, “that was crazy dawg.” Our friend, Andres the San Jose fan, is not so fired up. “We still have to wait until Friday to find out whether we make it through or not,” he explains, “we played with heart on the field, we deserve to win.”
Some people come for the experience, some come for the fight, some come to take notes and maybe light a flare or two; but the true fans come to support their team. The rest is just a sideshow.
When I was first charged with writing a story about Andean spectacled bears by the editor of this esteemed publication you can imagine my joy. Such a relevant, interesting, topical, compelling… if you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic here. The first thought that penetrated my brain-machine when I heard I would be writing a story about bears was “how the hell am I supposed to write a NEWS story about bears?” The second was, “are there even any bears IN Bolivia?” and the third was, “I’m going to get a beer god damn it.” After letting the idea simmer for a couple weeks, and after doing a bit of research and meeting up with the lovely Ximena Velez-Liendo, of the biologist persuasion, I was instilled with a new hope for this previously hopeless endeavor. I heard tell of a secret grove in the middle of the jungle, a young cub that had just been delivered from the jaws of capture and a story that promised to take me deep into the mountains. Foolishly, I did not bring insect repellant.
After dragging myself out of my hotel room in La Paz at 8:30am on a Tuesday morning I forced down some fruit and bread and a something else and swallowed a mystery pill that a lovely French girl gave me – she said it would help with my stomach. These altitudes don't agree with me; I don’t think Australians are supposed to dwell at heights above 45m for extended periods of time. I told the taxi to please take me to Villa Fatima, where I would rendezvous with my unfortunately short, yet nonetheless wonderful biologist companion. The bus ride to Coroico, through the foggy Andes and past the enticingly named 'death road' would take two hours. Bears await. Some cocoa leaves on the bus helped to calm my blast furnace of a stomach and soon I was feeling spritely and excited. The lady in front of me was wearing a tall, round bowler hat of the sort that Bolivian women love so dearly. I cursed Toyota for their lackluster suspension as the bus bumped and churned its traveling human contents along the road.
At around 11:30am we arrived at the sanctuary; a locked gate to a bridge, a river at the bottom of a deep valley. At the entrance and I remember wondering if these bears could swim – that river looks awfully shallow. We were greeted by a fair skinned biologist named Vicky, with whom Ximena was already familiar, and crossed the bridge into what looked more like a tiny village than a wildlife sanctuary. A few cabins on our left and to the right, a cafeteria surrounded by chicken wire to keep the animals away from the people food – each building nestled comfortably into the surrounding jungle. The first animals I noticed – I heard these guys before I saw them, and would continue to hear them all day – were the parrots. Three or four brightly coloured birds squawked Spanish ‘hola’s from their respective perches – who would have thought, el loros pueden hablar español. I guess I’m not going to be getting anything out of these Hispanic bastards until my Spanish lessons are a bit further along, all I could discern now was a bunch of unintelligible craw craw craws… maybe I should ask Ximena to translate later, but for now, I hold my cards to my chest.
The story that I am pursuing, before I get too much further into this retelling, is one of sorrow and loss. There is always hope and there is always time to laugh, but do not for a second fool yourself into thinking that this is supposed to make you feel good. There you go, take that 'human pride'. Sorry guys, things got a little dreary there for a second.
The young bear that had so piqued my interest in this trip is a cub that presently goes by the name of Tipni – a shameless cross-promotion of environmental interests by these conservationists to be sure, but one to be admired nonetheless. While I have previously stated that I intend to call the bear by my own name, (Eugene) as it happens, the bear in question was actually female. Rather than suffix my chosen name with the feminine ‘a’ to make ‘Eugena’ I have decided to forgo stubbornness for the time being and stick with Tipni – this whole business is surely confusing enough as it is for the little chica. She was taken from the wild by poachers with sibling, presumably at a very young age, and held captive for some time – probably a few months – in poor conditions. Her original captor had intended to sell her on the black market but authorities had got there in time and she was now in the safe hands of Vicky and her team of volunteers at the sanctuary. What had become of her sibling, and what misery had befallen her I would soon discover.
Before meeting Tipni we went to feed Aruna, the other spectacled bear currently living in the enclosure. Aruna was fully grown and had free roam of a large hillside with a river running through and plenty of vegetation – all in all my best estimates would be around 150m x 100m. The bear ate fruit: grapes, banana, papaya, and a few large bromeliads which it stripped from the base to get at the core – these, I am told, are the spectacled bear’s most important food source. I noticed that Aruna moved very similarly to a dog, scratching with hind legs and periodically batting away insects – Ximena told me that this is because all carnivorous mammals are divided into two main groups; dog-like and cat-like. Evidently, the bears fall into the former... this will be on the test. After what can only be described as a crash course in bear, we said goodbye to Aruna for the time being and went to meet Tipni. The time had come, as the insects secretly devoured my legs and the sun bore down on my hot, sweaty, jungle-man face I felt that now was the time when all would be made clear. Here it is Aidan, here is your story. Write monkey, write.
The hill was steep and the path up doubled back on itself twice, thus prolonging my anticipation. As the top of the her cage appeared over the crest of the last hill, the prancing woman inside me screamed, “SHE IS SO CUTE AND LITTLE I WANT TO TAKE HER HOME”... she flapped her hands too. I caught myself just in time though, thinking for a second that perhaps it was Tipni's ability to evoke such an emotional reaction that got her in trouble in the first place. I won't go around blaming the victim here though; that would be like blaming pretty girls for sexual harrasment – “come on honey pretty, why you gots to teeeease me like dat?” No, the adorable allure of a bear cub is no grounds to justify bear cub theivery. Besides, we could discern, Ximena told me, from the unhealthy light brown tinge of the fur on her ears and her severely stunted growth, that the bunch of heartless coke fiends had left her malnourished. What a way to treat a lady. I hear you asking, “but how can you tell that her growth was stunted without knowing exactly how old she is.” I hear you loud and clear, and I'm going to tell you – you look at the size of her teeth. Satisfied, smartass?
As Tipni climbed the small tree that jutted out from the centre of the floor in her 5x5 metre enclosure to take nuts from our esteemed biologist's hand, I knew that there would be no 'angle' to this story. No framing quote, no smiling tooth of a news anchor's face delivering the feel-good story of the night, “and today, an exceptionally cute bear has been saved from captivity, prepare your sighs viewers.” I could frame this as the sort of hopeful story that gives you the warmest of fuzzies deep down in your belly, but I shouldn't, and I won't. The fact of the matter is, a bear cub has been taken from it's mother in the wild, with her sibling – which, by the way, was killed by the dog at the conservation park, just to rub salt in that wound there. They were taken by a bunch of poachers who, for one reason or another, wanted to make some money off of an exotic native animal. Yes the poachers have been stopped, but the bear, call it Tipni or Eugena or N34, still remains an orphan. Its former sibling remains dead.
What happens now is simply an attempt to make the best of a terrible situation. This is what we humans do, we break things, we apologise, and then we trick ourselves into feeling good about the cleanup. The one piece of solace that can be taken from this all-too-familiar saga is that there are people like Vicky and her team with the will and the facilities to do provide a home to endangered animals, taken from the wild and sold into exploitation. That is the silver lining. Most people are out to do good things most of the time, and for every thousand good intentions there is one strong voice willing to act. Out in the darkness, while the demons run amok.
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