Sunday, 25 January 2015

Desaguadero: The Answer. 16 January

Frontier crossings are always interesting. Each has its own character. We've only managed five this trip. A great saving in passport stamps, for the navigator's document is going to be replete long before expiry. Fortunately South American officials are conservative and tidy, managing to fit at least four franks to a page, unlike their profligate counterparts in the USA, who consider their empire so important, that an entry stamp requires a whole page just for itself.

An Argentina~Chile crossing will be structured, orderly, rationally tedious. An Argentina~Uruguay is fast and effortless, going into Brazil, where they don't bother and as for Paraguay, they couldn't care less. As Europeans we're used to the ubiquity, uniformity, monotony of frontier protocols. The uniforms might differ, the languages surrounding you might indicate destination, but there's little variance. Here in South America, I find it difficult to think of two crossings that we've taken that are similar. Every single one is unique.

Our circuit through the Puna, a trip from the coast to the high plains, first encounters the sacred lake of Titicaca, at the city of Puno, where we keep its company until the major frontier town of Desaguadero. Bolivia once had its own seaboard, but lost it in the War of the Pacific, along with its nitrate rich Atacama desert. The peace settlement did, however, allow for an access, to allow it to trade with the rest of the world. That major conduit was a railway line that was destroyed by an earthquake. Now, despite Bolivia being a petro producer, she still requires to import her hydrocarbons. We know this well. Crossing over at Lago Changara we passed three kilometres of empty fuel tankers waiting to enter Chile and make their way down to the refinery on the coast. This time, we were passed at regular intervals by convoys of transports clambering up over the mountains from the Peruvian port town of Ilo. This one fact is significant for one major aspect of Desaguadero's economy.

Peruvian gas station

We were in need of a fill of petrol for the stove. I prefer to draw it from a gas station for reasons that will become apparent. But we pass station after station, some abandoned whilst still under construction, others have their pumps shrouded and trussed up in plastic sheeting. All are scrawled with political electioneering. All are closed. Yet all along the roadside there are ranks of stallholders, their frontages a squalor of diesel-infused moats, stacks of five gallon plastic Jerrycans, funnels and filler jugs.

My standard method for purchasing fuel is not to ask to have our bottle filled up, but to calculate in penny terms the quantity that will only half-fill the can. That way, hopefully, I get a half bottle full. It might prevent overfilling. All the gas stations are closed, so I join the queue of mototaxis, collectivos and fumes, standing in a slurry of greasy, muddy puddle water. Gratefully giving thanks that Peruvians are generally non-smokers. I've done the calculation, but these Peruenas never miss a trick. I end up paying not only for the full bottle, that I'm going to have to haul right back over the hill from whens it came, but also the fuel spilled over my hands and the river of pollutant that's now running back down into that puddle, spreading a flowering bloom of oily colours.

Now I'm being nagged by a question. If the petrol stations are closed, where do these ladies get their supplies? The answer is so obvious next morning. For we have inadvertently become a party to a piece of reset, taken our part in the local black economy. That quart of low grade octane, which will now clog our stove and frustrate breakfast cooking with its black reek of soot, literally "fell off the back of a lorry". There, on the edge of town, is a full, Bolivian registered, originally Icelandic owned, fuel tanker with a taxi-trike drawn up beside it. Ten five-gallon Jerrycans are being filled from a spigot in its side. Is the discrepancy noted, is it put down to evaporation, accidental spillage or just natural wastage? How long this 'economy' will survive will be interesting. That rail link from Arica on the Chilean coast to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, is now repaired, the rolling stock purchased, all that is required is the political agreements.

Taking some of those tankers off the road will not only have an effect on the road's asphalted surface, it will impinge on those roadside eateries that serve up the real fuel that we crave. The offering will either be fried cheese and trout or 'chicharrones de alpaca'. The latter a dish of unsalted maize corn, Andean freeze-dried black potatoes and fried camelid leather. A beast that doesn't run to fat. A dish that cries out for 'salt n' sauce'. Sometimes served without the aid of cutlery, we manage only half, it's so dry. Then, you do as the locals do, doggy bag the remainder, to re-fry, to resurrect it in a sauce of tomatoes and onions for tea later on.