Sunday, 10 March 2013

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.