Monday, 25 March 2013

Bleating Ewes, Bleeping Horns.

They come in many shades and tones. From the quasi cop-car nee-naws, the wolf and bird whistlers, the bronchial donkeys, to the anti-musical alarms. All, if amplified and applied at the correct moment can send a sonic shockwave right through my head, in one ear and out the other. Cerebral cleansing. Sole fatiguing. I collect these phonic incursions as examples of individuality, and was delighted when I encountered a new specimen. A bleating sheep. In the US, I had collected one specimen: a mooing cow horn, so assumed this to be a local speciality or at least a China import. The next colectivo to pass had a two-tone baa-baaing echo. It made for a pleasant diversion, a change from the wearisome normal. It was with the passing of the third minibus that I started to question my assumptions as the bleat seemed to come from on high and not from out of the vehicle’s bonnet. The fourth pass and an enlightenment. Four hobbled ewes double-doppler from the roof rack of the next passing, honking transport. Then a tuk-tuk overtakes; it too observes convention, it too beeps and in the back are another seven sheep captivated by a cargo net. It’s Sunday, it’s market day. Horn-haltered cows are being led down the main street, through the middle of the town. A solitary indignant goat peppers the road; it’s splayed across the knees of  a moto driver. A wizened Indigena, her face of weather-cured leather, is led along by a pair of llamas, she, shambling, bent double under  a rough hewn shawl, the  brace, camelid superior and keel marked with ear feathers of vibrant wool.

 How I wish that we'd packed our Canadian 'bear horn', an air pumped yatchsman's fog horn. An instrument with attitude and decibels, an instrument of revenge. Only the locals wouldn't notice, so impervious are they to extraneous and superfluous noise. Bleating ewes and oh….. those bleep…bleep…bleeping  horns.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Between Two Sovereign States

If thresholds are nebulous and boundaries are amorphous, then borders are chains draped in tatters of red and white poly bags, punctuated by flunkies with reams of red tape. Seas of equanimity stranded in eddies of confusion and interest, challenges and entertainment. I love them…. now I understand the rules: There are no rules. Every jurisdictive crossing is different, both in character and method, and if your transfer involves the title ‘Estado Plurinational de Bolivia‘, then it will have the added ingredients of delirious colours and milling confusions.

The frontera is announced by the quality macadam degenerating from slick smooth asphalt to cracked cement. ‘Crete flows, punctuated by leads of tyre-grabbing sand, archipelagos of traders' stalls streaming out from the pavement, islands of humanity aimlessly wandering with determined purpose, all breaking around the reef that is The Establishment; Document Control. Commercial clutter. Mercantile mayhem. Everybody has a dollar to make, but some are more determined, more purposeful than others: The ‘Bagagero’. We’re working our way through the Institutions of Bureaucracy; it’s a leisurely event, a processing that seems deliberately slow, but affords us an opportunity to watch a remarkable happening.

No merchandise crossed by
motor mechanical means in the time we were being franked out and in. All the tonnages, and they were considerable, were moved by a man and his sack barrow. Seventy-five kilos per second, four thousand five hundred kilos per minute, two hundred and seventy thousand kilos every hour. Man, woman and youth, each with their cart, all on piece-rates. Wheat flour, tuna fish, boxed wine, bottled water. It’s biblical. An un-peaceful, human powered, one-way conveyor belt, with the occasional crate of empty, deposit paid, beer bottles returning to the south.

It’s new, it’s novel and I’ve seen it before. The leaf cutter ant. The purposeful endeavor, the bustling scuttle, the
multitudinous organisation. The ants' motorway. The ‘persona-pista’. There’s even a blue pinnied ‘cholita’, a crossing attendant to allow the occasional foot traveller or the rare cyclist to break through. We breach the flow and it immediately heals. Leaving me to wonder: Why? To ponder on pulled muscles,
 back braces and the manual handling commandments.

Leaving us to collect another three stamps, bringing the trip total up to a page consuming, passport depleting twenty-seven. At this rate of attrition, we’ll both need new papers very soon.

The Establishment always has the last laugh. It needs its dollar.        

Friday, 22 March 2013

Amorphous Boundaries

The change comes suddenly, created by a drop of only a few metres and a distance measured in cycle lengths: a new place, another world. We’ve been flat-running alongside a lake, the landscape high, open, impoverished Bolivian puna, when the road suddenly plunges into a tight ravine. The walls rear up, the horizon shortens, the sky shrinks. Trees swell and stretch, the cliffs drip ferns and vines. We’ve stepped over a boundary. Plunged down into cloud forest. 

The descent continues, this plunge through a tangle of contours, this dive into the dank arboreal. Humidity and heat in an inverse proportion with altitude, my bike in a thrall to gravity. Exuberant foliage swells and swallows all our views, a man leaves the road, the jungle eats him up.  The boiling mist that’s newly sprung from the valleys, the mossed limb that hosts a fernery. The tangled skein of trailing lianas, the swelling cordage of buttress roots, the vibrant flicker of  waltzing butterflies, the incessant cadence of vibrating cicadas, the raucous caw of concealed birds. The roadside weed of flowering orchids. 

Verdant assault. 

Stereotypical jungle.

The pinwheeling, the careening, the blitz screaming. A swift cuts the sky. Such grace, such effort just to catch a fly. A fly in the desert? It seems unlikely. No fly-struck carrion, no rotting vegetation, no obvious source of contagion. Yet it and it’s neighbours have established a squat, burrow tunnels hollowed from the soft, exfoliating sandstone. But why here?

We round a corner and ride through a deep rock cut,
passing through another boundary and along a timeline of geological evolution to encounter an agricultural revolution. The polychrome of tan and dun meets the monochrome of green and monoculture. The wind-vexed, desiccated sand batters into flooded wetland paddy rice. A ribbon of monocrop fills to the brim the narrow valley, mirroring the twisting flow of the provender river.

Verdant assault.

Quintessential oasis.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Thresholds: Numero Dos

Our last night in Bolivia, and the wallet is replete with a stash of miscalculated Bolivianos. That age-old dilemma: how many notes to extract from a bank, when you’re not sure if another source might materialise, how much the next few days will cost, even how many days are left in country. Better to play safe. Which is why we’re splashing out on an evening meal; the alternative is the sharks at the frontier in their temples of usury.

It’s a frontier town, the shops radiating out from the plaza reflect the various tax disparities between two neighbouring countries. Yacuiba specialises in bathroom furnishings: tubs and basins, radiators and Jacuzzis, whilst the standard fare of shoes and shirts, soap powders and hair gels line the route to the immigration office. It’s still a Bolivian town in that the plaza has a triumphalistic monument to the ‘Heroes of the Chaco’;
Bolivar prances on his pedestalled mount, yet we’ve crossed a threshold. The boys sport River Plate futbol shirts and watch the AFA on the television. It’s 'asado' not ‘a la brasa’ in the pavement restaurants. It’s the schoolgirls that wear plaided, pleated, pelmet length skirts. It’s the stacked brooms for the yard sweep in all the shops. It’s the heladeria that offers thirty colours of ice cream, a third of which are a variation on a theme of dulce de leche. It’s ladies riding motos. It’s maté and termos. It’s my bife that comes with only chips; gone are the plattered heaps of boiled rice, fried plantain, shredded onion, with a single garnishing slice of tomato. True, it’s priced in Bolivianos but the sting is Argentine.

Yet where that threshold sits is difficult to determine. It’s been creeping over us for a few days. A dilution of the last vestiges of High Andean culture, that modest decorum now infused with a concentration of European genes, of the rising hemline and the plunging décolletage.  The attenuated transports, the public colectivos reduced to the private car. 

It’s a town that faces south, yet keeps it’s feet resolutely on Bolivian soil, as we’ll discover when we pedal the short distance to the border.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Tienda Indignities

I don’t  think it can be rain, as when I turned in, the first stars were just arriving. Anyway, precipitation is generally preceded by a warning crump of thunder. Maybe it’s just a few mosquitoes trapped between the tent’s skins, yet there isn’t that tell-tale instant insomniatic whine as they try to tele-port through the screen. Still there’s the gentle patter of something outside. 

I’m roused in the night by a gibbous moon, glancing from behind a mottled, marbled sky, the jungle furnished in noise and shadow, frogs and cicadas harmonise, something rustles in the undergrowth, but still the patters fall. Maybe it’s a light fog, condensation falling from the leaves, or could it be that near-biblical phenomenon of weeping trees.
It’s only in the early light of morning that I discover that we’ve pitched under a crop of incontinent caterpillars. The tent is latrined in their pooped dung. Yet another scatological addition to the list of indignities that our tents have suffered. The fruit bats of Queensland that ruined a drying shirt and pockmarked a flysheet with digested Moreton Bay figs; the packs of Argentine dogs that repeatedly squirt territorial urine, the cats that are determined to claw any taut nylon; the imprisoned moth that broke out, chewing it’s way to freedom through the mosquito netting.

That’s now countered by a break-in. A critter has eaten it’s way right through the waterproof membrane of a pannier, then around the edge of a Tupperware pot, through the intake pipe of the water filter, feasting on some water retention granules, only to nibble the foil from a cheese wedge. Such dedication to destruction, all for such small reward. The joys of jungle camping.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Piedra Solitaire

A day that has detoured and contorted, where the map has lied and the wind has been hot and head-on, then has insulted by not providing a room. The distance is mounting, the sun dropping towards an oceanic horizon; time to accept that we’ll have to camp in a tent rather than in a room. Only the possibilities for a stealth site are minute. The desert stretches forward into a blue vanishing point, out to an ocular infinity, these wayward undulations of soft dunes swaying west into the sea. A sandscape devoid of vegetation, a rockscape devoid of any apparel. Still the kilometres accumulate and it’s looking like we will have to wait for dusk and the hundred metre dash off the road, the dark time pitch and a pre-dawn departure, when serendipity steps in. Our guardian angel, who comes in many guises, offers up a series of small volcanic vents, a string of denticulated intrusions that sweep back from the road, a perfect shroud for a camp. Our own private hermitage. The wind packed grit has swept in flowing waves that curl around each protrusion, an interlocking successions of Fujiyamas. Minimised volcanoes with angles of repose. Outlines that please and calm the eye, a solemnity for the mind. It feels sacreligous to even walk, to footprint in this pristine space; and yet I have to desecrate, to dismantle the jigsaw of a shattered plutonic, plundering for guy rope weights to tether our bunkered tent. This humbling knowledge that no human has ever moved, nor ever touched one of these stones. A dispeopled space so devoid of human hospitality, yet offering so much imaginative stimulus.

These soothing sweeps have just one distort, a solitaire, one small insignificant granite stone, set in a monoculture of ground grit. A recluse that has forsaken, a 'deserere' that has left the mother lode, a true deserter. Round, pitted, worn down not by faith or water but by an aeon of flagellation. I
pick it up; it’s leaden heavy, rough pocked and perfectly balled. Special. Cherishable. I want to own it. Another keepsake. Yet, too many of these windstones have been collected. They now lie, dysfunctional, in the air-conditioned reception courts and on the clipped irrigated lawns of the multi-starred hotels of the coast, in much the same way that the Inca era, immaculately cut, polished granites can be found in ordinary back gardens all around the Sacred Lake.

It belongs only here. I put it back in the place of no water, the northern Atacama.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Experimental Verification

It’s a  piece of knowledge that’s backed up with the formula. Water boils at a lower temperature the higher you climb. Tea on Everest is lukewarm, every expedition climber confirms this fact in any and every account. Only I hadn’t appreciated the significance on the Puno - that is until we ended back down on the Peruvian Pacific coast. I had got used to boiling water (with our electric boilie) for a coffee in a plastic cup. It kept it’s shape, I kept my fingers. We dropped 4,000 m or about 13,000 ft in one morning, a blast of freewheeling, a blaze of hot rims and twisting tyre walls. That evening I’m preparing the Forager’s fix of caffeine and nearly scald my fingers as the cup turns flaccid, wrinkles and crumples. Sure proof, an empirical scientific lesson.

Which now throws up a new line of investigation and a few new questions. What is the boiling point of water on the banks of Lake Titicaca? Will it kill protozoans like Giardiasis? And how do the locals cook rice? Answers: 88°C, don’t know and pressure cookers. So, tolerate cool coffee, use the ceramic water filter and resort to blind faith. Trusting that the rice you were served yesterday was properly handled, for it arrived at the table too fast to have been cooked from fresh.  Apart from chicken, what does e-coli taste like?

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Whole-Aisle Choices

Each country has its supermarket idiosyncratic peculiarities, personalities that reflect ‘place’. In Bolivia the ‘whole-aisle choice’ was a multiple choice of rice grades, all with a confusion of names: from the cheap Gallito, through Cholo and Faron to the top end offerings from Saman, each further subdivided into a ‘tipo of zeros’, not dissimilar to wire wool. 

In Argentina, the perplexing choice is in Yerba Mates, where the options seem dependent upon allegiance, and your father’s preference, not dissimilar to the way you might once have chosen a bank or your profession. 

In the land of ‘the dream’, it’s canyons of confusion, stacked cliffs of high-fructose corn-syrup breakfast cereals, whilst in Scotland it would appear to be the ready-meal and soda pop.

However, today we’re in Peru and I’m presented with the
stacked Doric columns of tinned tuna. Flaked and blocked, grated and filleted. I’ve joined the Forager for my occasional session of retail therapeutic education, or more accurately: her chance to show me how interesting and frustrating food shopping can become and why it’s such a protracted process. It’s duration, I’m well versed in, as I defend our parked bikes against reversing taxis, curious boys and the creeping interface between sunlight and sunshade.

Today we need porridge.  We always need porridge. We’ve met those who’ll not leave base without the comfort blanket of a sliced white and cheddar wedge, or the remodeled Mars Bar that lurks in the bottom of a rucksac that looks like it’s gone three rounds with an anvil. To forget is to induce instant ‘Bonk’, a collision with ‘the Wall’. When the day goes wrong and the intended re-supply point transpires to be but a name on an anonymous junction and not the hoped for emporium of calories, there’s always that bag of oats. A product on which I feel I’m becoming an international authority, not so much for it’s production as for it’s acquisition.   
In different countries it comes with differing statuses. In Bolivia it was easy to find, ready bagged or out of the bulk bin, but coming with an add-mix of  grit, stone and dust. In Argentina it’s the phonetic generic: ‘Kwacker’, stored in close proximity to the volatilic soap powders, from which it acquires an added piquancy. In the land of ‘the Free’, the message is simple; don’t hunt for your oats in the breakfast cereal aisle, they’re an embarrassing ‘basic’; try looking in that tiny section that has gelatine, flour and yeast. The stuff without added value. Your bag of carb’ will be on the bottom shelf, tucked away in the corner, taking up the least popular spot in retailing: The Unadulterated. It was whilst cycling the southern US states that we found how ‘Quaker’ had managed to circumvent this problem of adding value to oats: the addition of a ‘free’ bakelite beaker, circa mid 20th century gas station.
Here in Peru, things are different. I had speculated as to when we might start to find difficulty in sourcing ‘avena’, and what might we substitute in its place. I need not have worried; our difficulty is one of choice. Take it in the pure form, or with soya, quinoa, maca or kwichi, often coming with a condiment of ‘sticks and nails’. Soya is sufficiently ubiquitous as to require no explanation, quinoa is gaining a devoted following, even if it’s related to the gardener’s bete noire of fat hen. Both offer the addition of cheaper proteins. ‘Kwetchi’ is the Quechuan name for the purple or white flowering amaranth, an occasional British garden interest plant. ‘Maka’, was the new crop to me, a high altitude root brassica. All these permutations, and I think we might have tested all the choices, offer a tasty, if glutinous start to the day, especially if a tin of evaporated milk accidentally materialises in the basket. However on a blind tasting I suspect I might struggle to tell them apart, especially as they all come masked with the an add-mix of sticks and nails; the overtones of cinnamon and cloves.

The Forager enters the gloom of an unlit store, asks for ‘avena’, receives a blank look. This narrative is not new, she’s learning the language, so she asks for ‘kwacker’, and gets handed the requested item. The packet depicts cartoon characters: the three bears and the word ‘Avena’. Oddly there’s no references to a red, glossy-cheeked member of the Religious Society of Friends.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Who Made Your Breakfast This Morning?

That near perfect colour combination: red rock and green verdura. To which can now be added the architectural floral elegance of the American Aloe, agaves that have exploded solitary, venerably stretched flowering stems. Farmscapes of immediacy and grandeur, crops of opulence and verdant stature. Corn maize that would swallow a stilt walker, brassicas with the proportions of medicine balls, squashes that number in the teens to the ton. It’s not difficult to understand why an Inca empire, and it’s antecedent cultures, settled down this valley, why it became sacrosanct. Water and an iron rich soil, combined with a microclimate, a total that exudes fecundity. Yet it’s only a narrow flat-bottomed trough, held in place by steep walls. Not exactly promising potential for extensive, globally significant agricultural development, no prairie, no steppe, no pampa, no combines, (although I did find a green tee-shirt, logo’d: ‘Jhon Llama’). Yet from these terraced slopes emerged the Scot’s national cuisine, the national condiment and the Saturday night national challenge: Potatoes, tomatoes and red hot chilli peppers. Greasy chips, red sauce and a drunken Vindaloo.  Yet, not content with sculpting a stereotypical character, not content to plant breed, these same agriculturalists turned their skills to food processing, and in this instance, the freeze dried potato.
In our quests through the myriad of market stalls, we pick up on an unlabelled bag of, what we hoped would be puffed corn; it would make a change from oats for breakfast. As all bags come unmarked, it becomes a lottery. This bag contained grey-speckled white blobs, of the anticipated size, only it was heavier than expected. Maybe they’re the Potosoñi variation. If they are, then they’re the depth charge variant, denser, drier, blander. We both give up after a couple of experimentations, donating the stash to the next tenant of our room. Another mystery, one to stand alongside the ‘Fraternity of the Dry Tongue’. It will take time and the Peruvian Sole to drop, rather than the Bolivian Boliviano. I find an answer a few weeks later, in another country’s market: sacks and sacks of them, graded by size and colour, stacked along side the sacks of wheat, oats and the plethora of rice types. They’re ‘morayo’, dried potatoes, to be rehydrated, swollen out, in a stew, and not in my stomach as I had attempted. They were filling.

The Valle Sagrado, sacred and sad. For all this agricultural architecture and developmental endeavour has been, is still being lost. A bunch of illiterate, third rate, second sons turn up in 1532, with gold fever in their eyes. Conquistadores is the victor’s grandiloquent name, when ‘thieving bandits’ would be more eloquently accurate.  Through ignorance, the greed of plunder, and slavery, they manage to deplete hundreds of individual varieties from the gramineae, solanacea and cuburbitaceae families. An endeavour that is still on going, now under the guise of ‘market forces’ and ‘new, improved’ science. Science that might soon regret all those irretrievably lost genes from a savage’s plant breeding programme. 

You stand and stare at the masonry skills in Hatunrumiyoc, with its twelve sided stone, watching the visitor attempting to disprove their guidebook’s assertion that their credit card can’t be inserted in the mortarless joints. Marvel at the organisation required to shift the monumental, megalithic stones up at Sacsayhuaman. Wonder at the logistics of administrating an empire with the supposed ignorance of the wheel. But at the root of all these achievements is a family grubbing in an iron rich, blood red soil, mattocking between their rows of verdant green corn, perched on their narrow terraced fields.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Toot ... Toot!

Toot….I’ve seen you, you’re a hundred paces off-. Toot…just in case you’ve forgotten that I’m behind you. Toot…Toot…to say that I’m going to overtake you. That’s one car passed. Tooooooot… I’m a lorry, and yes, surprisingly I am going to pass you, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you in a moment, as you might not yet have noticed the ninety-eight decibels of slimy diesel reek that I’m about to belch in your face. Hoooot…..see, I did warn you. Two down and a whole country to go. Toot…Toot… I know I’m going the other way, but I thought that you might like know that I’ve seen you. Toot…Toot… I know that you’re parked up, I see you’re eating a banana sandwich, still I thought you might like to hear my horn. Toot…Toot… and yes, I do know that it’s barely first light, but I’ve got to garner a colectivo of passengers for that run to Cusco, and no, I can’t help it if the competition are all doing the same thing.

If we had thought that the Boliviaños were a noisy race, we had yet to meet their Perueño cousins. Horns. Klaxons. Sirens. Whistles. Bugles. True, their national road code requires that on overtaking you sound your intention and presence, yet that’s the same code that requires the use of an archaic right-hand turn signal. Strange how one act can prevail whilst the other doesn’t. One lorry was so pleased to see us, that he klaxoned for over a hundred metres to our rear, and was still in the mirth as he rounded the next bend.  Such was his clamorous applause that I took to the verge, only to find he was on the other side of the road. Such a courteous, happy chap.

I hoot for dogs, and gringos on cycles, I hoot for llamas, and stones on the road, I hoot to find passengers, I hoot deliberately, particularly where I’m asked not to.

The insistence and the temper of these intrusions are no indicator as to the nature of the engine invading into my audio space. A yappy effeminate fluting will eminate from a lumbering truck, whilst a full throated bugling might materialise from an underpowered  moto. Even the tricycle rickshaw comes with a rubber bulb horn; fortunately they’re the one vehicle that we can overtake, so ‘when in Rome…’  we reciprocate….with a polite ‘buen dia’.

So when in Qosq’o we do as the Cuzqueños and totally ignore all bleats and blares, the blasts and booms, which is a shame, potentially disrespectful, as sometimes the trumpeting is offering welcome and encouragement. Yet again we’ve accepted the thrown gauntlet, entering into the lists of another Americas city, contesting for road space, jousting with the micros, tilting at the taxi Ticos, combating the barking dogs and the wayward wandering visitors, all in a ferment of simmering monox and a flue of fumes. Blow, blast, blare: blinker what’s coming from in front. Hoot, honk, horn: ignore what’s coming from behind. It’s remarkable how well this strategy works. The bliss of relative ignorance, the joy of selective deafness. We’re still the fastest wheels and the only hand signallers in town.  

Monday, 11 March 2013

Amarillo for Luck and Prosperity

This morning we wake to a spindrift of yellow tissue confetti, drifting under the threshold, and across our creaking hardwood floor. A new day. A new month. A New Year.

We emerge, fresh into the bright light of morning, to find the old year still in mourning, deep in the dark slugs of bacchanalia. Out, to wander the quiet, narrow steep streets of the old colonial quarter. The ‘Ticos’ are roused, stotting off the high granite kerbs, sliding around corners on the polished granite cobble setts. Indestructible
dodgem cars, their sobriety questionable. The party still flows, clutches of lost revellers prop the Corinthian columns of the cloistered arcades around the plaza, drape the steps of the Catedral: snoozing, snoring gargoyles yet to notice the change of date.

Slowly the nascent year emerges, new from its chrysalis. The Latino Sunday best-dressed  mothers-in-law, cradling the cribbed doll, marching to the Templo de San Blas, to crave a blessing, the wish for a grandchild. The artisanals setting out their woollen
wares, the polished pendants, the ‘Pachamamas’, the ‘Inca cruces’, the woven bangles, arrangements on multi coloured blankets, that litter across the pavement. Quechuan mothers with their daughters, bright in traditional dress, each with garlanded lambs and llamas: ‘por una foto’.  The yellow of plucked marigold petals that were scattered last night, now in a tidal fetch, drifting around wall founds and etching out the street cobblestones. The traders constructing a river of blue plastic to sun or rain shade, as the weather moods dictate, today’s goods. 

‘Yesterday: Yesteryear‘, pleated wheatsheafs and photocopied euros, yellow boxer shorts and yellow sombreros, yellow spectacles and yellow thongs. Squibs, rockets and an ordinance of bangs. 

‘Newday: Newyear’ it’s a return to an old fare of Nke (sic) knock-offs and spurious Puma, of panetone and evaporada;  the fruited loaf that dries out but never goes off, the tinned milk that tradition dictates, required fodder to sweeten or moisten the swallow. A hand-propelled merry-go-round builds as the scaffolders dismantle last night’s stage, the table footballers uncover their pitches as the mega amps and decked speakers depart by lorry. The legion of street sweepers have already laundered the plaza of old night, flushed out and cleansed into new day, all before the emerging tourist creeps from their hoteles, hostals and hospedajes.      
A melange of out with the same-old and in with the same-new, only it might take more than one day to effect; they’re still decommissioning the ordinance, there’s still going to be some sore heads, for a few more days. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Borders. #1

The usual Americas’ duplicated, blotty-penned, form-filling, discussions and decisions about our identity and then an escape from officialdom. We’ve only crossed one low granite headland, one just like the last five since leaving town. It’s the same Sacred Lake beside us, the same snow-dusted hill sits on my south, the same soft smear of rain still falls out of the same cloud. Yet we’re in a different place. Initially it was the gaudy moto-rickshaws waiting for the first of the day’s foot pedestrians to walk the frontera, but it’s the second image that was stark and startling: it’s an image in negative form, that says more about where we’ve just left than where we’ve just arrived. It’s a girl walking to school.

St. Stephen’s Day, what an Anglo would know as ‘Boxing Day’, yet the schools are open for business, or at least for those who arrive on time.  As we ride through town, having interviewed and liberated some ‘Nuevo Soles’ from the hole in the wall, we pass more and more scholars who are converging on a heavy metal gate set into a high wall. A siren sounds and a population take to their heels. In the eerie silence of it’s termination, the gate closes, locking out the dilatory, incarcerating the punctual. It’s a scene that we never witnessed in Bolivia. There the schools stand forlorn, empty, the gates resolutely shut, such that I hoped it was a long holiday recess, knowing it to be otherwise. We’d seen so many herds of llamas, sheep and cattle tended by expert whip-and-gutty wielding children, to know that these weren’t just holiday jobs.        

It takes two countries to create a border, but just one image to define a difference.

It's a Map, Jim, But Not As We Know It.

Sometimes our old northern conditioning manages to swamp our new found southern learning. It’s that unquestioning, touching faith in the veracity and truth of mapping. A product from the Victorian age of enquiry, correctitude and the Ordnance Survey. The latter, as the name suggests, is a more ominous product of an armaments industry. If you’re going to be shelling someone, it helps if you know  where they are. If you’re British, you’ll soon be invading them, subjugated to the will of the Surveyor-General. 

For many days we’ve been riding the ‘Inter-oceanic’, an interesting, if initially illogical concept that links the Atlantic to the Pacific, linking Sao Paolo to San Juan, linking a blue whale to a zooplankton. In so doing, managing to traverse, diagonally, the greatest span of the continent.  Much of the planned route will be Amazonian river travel, with the high ranges being negotiated on asphalt. There’s a road sign just outside Cusco, that threatens: 6534km to Sao Paolo; more a challenge than a warning. Yet more unfinished business: I see another trip.

Having played on the interesting twisting threads, the roller-coaster bits, it would seem churlish to forswear the final few leagues that lead down to the sea. Especially as the map suggests that it could be incorporated into a triangular loop, thus negating that erroneous outrage, the sin of a repeated route. The conceit that imagines a way to look and feel the same in both directions, the phantasy that believes a traveller can only take from the path, that leaves nothing of themselves as they pass along its way.

Our ‘terminal port’ transpires to be a long jetty of hopeful endeavour, our ‘terminal town’ more ‘China iron mining’ than a rain bows end. It has that Perueño stamp of never-completed construction, of sticky desert dust and bright flat light. In this instance it’s a new poured concrete hotel, ship’s hull flared and  tethered to the plaza by a sweeping, glazed, gangplank bridge. It’s first imponderable question will be as to it’s eventual completion: will it be before or after the first paying guest? If our experience of virtually every other accommodation is an indicator, then it will live in a state of perpetual extension, thus ensuring an infinite supply of ‘crete mixing, piled brick and tripping heaps of re-bar. The second  question asks whether the architect has specified glazed windows, and if so, will the builders remember to fit them? I’m becoming convinced that Peruvians are genetically descended from  the Troglodites, happy to be incarcerated in a ventless cell. His electrical drawings will have spec’d a solitary low wattage bulb to be set, strategically, behind the ceiling mounted television or fan, thus ensuring a stobic induced migrain. It’s probably my high latitude genes that crave any and every available lumen of natural light, my skin receptors hungry for all the convertible vitamins that are on offer. Here the locals get fried in light year round.

On leaving the hotel that morning, an ‘exception to the rule’ establishment, one that has run out of expansion room, an ‘habitacion’ with a window, albeit, one with a very immediate view of an unrendered hollow brick wall, we take our customary advice on how to escape a ‘sin señal’ town. We follow up on the hand waves with two further enquiries, all with the same answer. ’Just go up that road and turn right’. we’re not convinced. We’d descended ‘that’ road only yesterday, and hadn’t noted any ‘just turn rights’, but as any alternative will result in an oceanic dooking, we follow local advice. For half a day. All the way back to the beginning. All the way back to route One; the PanAm, the road that stretches from Dead Horse, Alaska to Ushuia, Patagonia. On completing the requested ‘turn right’ onto what we had hoped to avoid: we join a length of broken-shouldered road, a boneyard-hot stone desert, in the company of trucking fleets. Plenty of time to reflect, to get positive, to consider our erroneous deviation. To question why we’ve been sent on this roundabout route. The explanation comes when we eventually find the other end, located at a point on the map that suggests at least a cross-roads town, but transpires to be a short bridge and an unrideable vague trail in soft sand. The real question should have been: why did we stick so vehemently to a faith in the map? For a defence, I offer the fact that all three charts show the same cartographic mistake. Which only goes to prove that someone’s been cribbing.

Initially it seems like a lost day, the town no different to many that we’ve met and will meet, parts of the ‘scape will be repeated many times to come. And yet with hindsight and a few days of retrospection, a positive aspect can be morphed out of the negativity. There’s the mind food, that anticipation for a future trip, another ocular trace in the atlas. A postulation of possibilities. A route that flows along red printed roads, rages down blue painted rivers, cycling days spinning perpetually on paper, in two simple  dimensions, all passing in a trice. When the reality would be different, sobriety will hit with the advent of multi-dimensional holographic mapping and the next Andean stack of switchback climbs.

It’s the small retrospective picture that carries the delight. The wayward undulations of soft sand dunes flowing over the hillside, the water rippled berms where rain has never fallen. The stone gnomons with leeward shadow grit, that tell not the time, but that of the insistent, prevailing wind. The solitary flowering bromeliads, an anchored buoy in an estuary of swirling tidal dust. The vast, soft, flushed roseate sand valley, viewed from the final coastal ridge, that downgrades the distant transports to Tonka toy scale and our dogmatic Pavlovian attachment to a map, into junk bond status.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Playing Shop

Do you remember going ‘round to your Gran’s, and setting up the clothes horse, draping it with a sheet and then gathering up as may items to stock your ‘shop’? Every market stall in Bolivia looks just like that memory. There’s….
Plaster trowels and make-up compacts
Cement mixers and manicure sets
Gas masks and Ear plugs
Lug buds and Candle wax

Candy canes and Walking sticks
Broom flowers and Trilby hats
Felt pens and Crust cutters
Chicken scissors and Butcher’s knives
Table sets and Condiments 

Glazed cupolas and Brass bells
Ceramic camels and Votive candles
Wise Kings and Christ cribs
Xmas lights and Garlic bulbs
Flashing light sabres and cribbed ‘Hobbit’ discs  

Saint’s Days calendars and Vegetable draining colanders
Runcible spoons and Waving cats
Spangles and spectacles
Sunglasses and Parasols
Poncho y Machismo
Crystal nails and Galvanised pails

Pac-a-macs and Bristol’s Almanac
Pious tracts and Street preachers
Faux Leathermen and Rawhide soles
Pink thongs and Angel wings

Toy drums and Pan lids

Mixing bowls and Toilet rolls
Boxed ‘Panatone’ y ‘pay for’ Telephone
Tarjeta y Recarga aqui

Boob tubes and Chain lubes
Inner tubes and Rubic cubes

Puzzle books and ‘Halo Kitty’ journals
Bic pens and Key fobs
Road cones and Coat hangers
Head halters and ‘Donkey for Sale’

Screwdrivers and Taxi hire
Flash drives and Toy cars
Model colectivos and Tooting conductors
Electric leads and square pin adaptors
Clockwork cars and Binoculars
Rum glasses and whisky decanters
Toffee apples and Toasting forks
Knife grinders and Soap powders
Cement mixers and Manicure sets
Pencil cases and Toothpastes
Scouring pads and  Muscle balm

Marlboro cigarettes and Rubber dinosaurs
Jelly moulds and Dartboards

Felted bowlers and Baseball bats
Nail clippers and Gin traps
Boot laces and Pie cases
Glossy counterpanes and Tin window frames

Frog mouthed spades y Freddi del Sapos
Mattocks and Padlocks
Hassocks and Puddocks

Knitting wool and Crotchet brocade
Spinning spindles and Spun candy 
Toothpicks and Cycle gears 
Prized bowlers and Power batteries
Howitzer ordinance and New Year mortars

Brittle brollies and Andean dollies
Sindy (sic) Dolly and Kaleidoscopic balls
Dance gowns and Carnival masks  
Charcoal braziers and Cleavage Brassieres

Flock cushions and Raw sheepskins
Perfumes, Scents, Fragrances
Unguents, Pungents and Bottled pongs
Boot polish and crema de Lettuce leaf
Lotions, Potions, and Solutions, Emulsions
Creams, waxes and greases
Corpulent chess pieces

Plastic ordinance and Nuevo años squibs
Yellow pants and Promised prosperity
Lucky pleated wheat and Photocopied plata

Flip-flops y Book swaps
Agua por affluence y gringos por arrogance

Water pumps and Corkscrews
Cast cows and Pottery donkeys
Nativity stables and extension cables
Mobile ’phones y ‘tarjetas aqui’

Inka kolas and Cuddly koalas
Soda pop and Stuffed toys
Fairground riding and styro White swans
Wedding bouquets and Funería coffins
Confetti and gladioli

Inflated Bart Simpsons and blow-up Super Heroes
Foam padding and Gauze wadding
Backpacks and Polyprop sacs

Knock-off Nik (sic) and spurious Adidas
sham Lacosta and forged….Europa
bogus ‘Boss’ and Copy-cat tat

Metal forks and Plastic crocs
Mental sums and Glue gums
Sticky backed plastic and tele’ antenas
San Pedro y azul
‘Califera perfecta’ and Typed forms
Manuel click-clacks on a Manual
Imprenta y Fotocopia
       y Fotografia
Kodak printed film and Aymara costumed bears  
Desiccated llamas and Zebra’d pyjamas
A garlanded Alpaca and a photograph opportunity

Forests of pine’d plastic and Bristles of toilet brushes
Besoms and Switches
Mujer hosiery and ‘Lady finger’ bananas

Dried sow-thistle and Singing bird whistle
Almond nut kernels and Padded dog kennels

Small coinage and Engorged notes
Panpipes and Pantiles
Rhone pipes and road wash Rivers
Diarios and a Gutter press
Printed blankets and Acrylic jumpers
Jack leads and Rosary beads
Religious tracts and Auto blessings
Ferrari stickers and Madonna transfers
Barca shirts and Cholita skirts

Weird fruits y Quality tastes
Street food and e-coliform
Sevilla oranges y Barber’s shears

Aymara masks and Hip flasks
Water butts and Rubber stamps

Trike by Triang and Knickers by Nike
Grubbers by Little Tyke and Diggers by the day

Blue Visqueen sheet and Milky ripe wheat  
Squeezed almond oils and Burning mozzi coils

Plastic peace doves and Leather boxing gloves
Rebar y rebar y rebar

le Bizarre y la Bazaar
En total y Hecho en China

‘sorry’…you want a condom?’…‘no, we don’t sell tower blocks’

Almost everything is here, everything is for sale in my Gran’s Bolivian Bazaar. Trouble is, she wants me to put it all back…….in it’s right place…..NOW.